One-Minute Book Reviews

March 2, 2009

Helen Garner’s ‘The Spare Room’ — Cancer Tests a Friendship in a Prize-Winning Australian Novel Written at a 9-Year-Old Reading Level

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:24 am
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A dying woman tests others’ patience when she takes the advice of quacks at a sham clinic

The Spare Room. By Helen Garner. Holt, 192 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

How should we treat terminally ill people who don’t accept that they are dying? Should we support the delusion that they will get better – on the premise that false hope is better than none – or tell the truth?

These questions underlie The Spare Room, a short novel about a friendship between two women in their 60s that is tested when one develops metastatic bowel cancer. After conventional treatments fail, Nicola moves in with Helen for three weeks in order to try the alternative therapies peddled by a sham clinic in Melbourne, Australia: Laetrile, coffee enemas, intravenous vitamin C, and an “ozone sauna” said to promote “sweating out the toxins.” Helen is initially solicitous but runs out of patience as she cares around-the-clock for Nicola, who at first rejects the few remaining medical options that might ease her pain, such as slow-release morphine capsules. Helen’s repressed fury leads to a confrontation in which she cruelly pelts her friend with accusations such as, “I wait on you hand and foot” and “Can’t you use your brains?”

Helen’s frustrations are understandable in the abstract and described in prose as smooth as glass. But The Spare Room never gets below the surface of its characters, perhaps in part because it is written at a 9-year-old reading level, according two widely used measures of readability. How could Helen turn so mean-spirited so fast? Garner would have you believe that the change grew out of the physical and emotional strains of nursing a difficult adult. That’s part of her point: Caring for the dying can turn us into people we don’t recognize.

But many people face such demands more gracefully, and Garner doesn’t make clear why Helen didn’t. The Spare Room works best when it sticks to describing the horrors of Nicola’s cancer: the pain, the night sweats, the crone-like posture. The most credible words in this novel will come as no surprise to anyone who has cared for a dying relative, or watched a World War II movie: “God bless morphine.”

Best line: The opening paragraph: “First, in my spare room, I swiveled the bed onto a north-south axis. Isn’t that supposed to align the sleeper with the planet’s positive energy flow, or something? She would think so. I made it up nicely with a fresh fitted sheet, the pale pink one, since she had a famous feel for color, and pink is flattering even to skin that has turned yellowish.”

Worst line: A comment made Helen’s five-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, who has seen Saddam Hussein on television: “What did he do, Nanna, to make him a baddie?” The “Nanna” in midsentence is stilted. A 5-year-old would be more likely put it at the beginning. And the low reading makes many lines seem dumbed-down.

About the reading level: The Spare Room has a fourth-grade (9-year-old) reading level, according to tests of pages 17–18 and pages 117–118 that used the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics and the Spache Readbility Formula.

Published: February 2009

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Spare Room was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 2, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this review.

About the author: Garner is a novelist and the author of the true-crime books The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation, both bestsellers in her native Australia. Her Wikipedia entry lists some of her awards.

Garner talks about The Spare Room in an audio podcast.

One-Minute Book Reviews is the home of the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books. A list of the ten 2009 finalists and passages from the books that helped them make the shortlist appeared last week.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved. and

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