Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Spare Room, by Helen Garner

The blurb on the back of this novel says it is Helen Garner’s first ‘work of fiction in fifteen years’. Peter Carey also raves that Helen Garner is a great writer and that The Spare Room is a great book. I’m presuming that the two of them are friends and Carey is giving a free plug.

Admittedly, I don’t read much fiction these days, but the way this book is written it seems that Garner has taken a three week stint she took caring for a friend who was dieing with cancer, and wrote the details up from diary notes.

It’s written in the first person and the narrator is called Helen. There’s really no pretence that this is fiction. If Garner had called this a memoir of a dieing friend, the categorisation would have worked better. So you read this and wonder, is Helen Garner just relating the mundane and domestic details of looking after someone dieing of cancer, or is she working here as one of Australia’s finest novelists?

Garner seems content to settle describing the mundane day-to-day events of life, the boring bits you don’t really want to reveal to others of your own boring life. Garner does this, and I’m not sure it’s a virtue. It gives a kind of icky feeling to read these details laid bare on their own, without further commentary.

I recall reading Helen Garner’s fiction years ago and admired the work she went into her finely crafted sentences, even though I was not that keen on the subject matter.

In this ‘novel’, Garner seemed tired and simply walked through the business of writing a work of fiction.

Having said that, I did really quite enjoy this book. The narrative kept me interested and it was revealing of the range of emotions that the carer goes through, the grief, the anger and the guilt.
I wish I could say something nicer about this novel, but I don’t understand why Helen Garner is so feted. She does a neat job of what she set out to do, but is Helen Garner a ‘great’ writer and novelist?

There’s something missing in Garner’s imaginative work. Perhaps I should give her non-fiction more of a go. I liked The First Stone and a collection of her journalistic work that I read years ago.

I hope this doesn’t offend Garner fans, of which I bet she has many.

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