A/N: An essay written for PWP110 – Introduction to Writing. Grade: Pass.


This essay deems to analyse an excerpt from the fictional novel The Spare Room written by Helen Garner.  To successfully examine this work, this writer will explore the theme of the work and why it is a delicate subject in popular culture; study the relationship between the writer and the key subject(s) and how this has influenced the work; and finally I will analyse the declared genre and how it has influenced my personal reception of the text as a reader. 

The theme of the work is not clear until page five; the narrator is discussing her future guest, Nicola, with her friend Leo over dinner.  As the reader you discover the picture slowly as the conversation unravels, it becomes clear that an illness is involved when the narrator states “…a course of alternative treatment…”(Garner, 2008) as the conversation gets further in you realise that Nicola is a cancer patient who despite her almost desperate scramble for a ‘cure’ is going to inevitably die.  The core themes to the work seemed to me to be cancer and death.  This is a delicate subject among popular culture due to the colossal amount of people that die from cancer per year, 26,913 people died from cancer related diseases in 2011 alone (ABS, 2011).  This subject is delicate and would affect readers who have been personally exposed to cancer and cancer related deaths, it is also a shock for people who have not been exposed to it to see what these people go through. Nicola is in what Leo describes as the ‘fourth stage’ of cancer, this is usually what occurs in the last two to three months of life: fatigue, pain, chronic pain, nausea & vomiting, sleep problems, dehydration, noisy breathing, involuntary body movement (ACS, 2013). Garner describes these symptoms in disturbingly accurate detail; she also describes the emotional turmoil that occurs to the people around cancer patients “How long has she been this bad? Why hadn’t someone warned me?”(Garner, 2008) The theme of this work is a sensitive subject, something some readers would not wish to explore as it is too close to home; this writer believes that Garner has shown the theme in a disconcertingly accurate light, one that is both emotional and clinical, one that could only be described by someone who has experienced it firsthand.

Helen Garner is known in the fiction world for her shocking novels, they are all a self depiction of experiences she has had throughout her life, she writes intimately and it feels to the reader that you can almost get a glimpse of the raw emotional turmoil of the human soul. In an interesting piece called “I” by Helen Garner in this she states: ‘…the ‘I’ in the story is never completely me’. (Garner, 2002) This is an interesting perspective on the ‘I’ narrative she uses in her novel, The Spare Room. Although she is writing from a personal point of view, she has fictionalised, to a degree, herself and the death of her friend. From this we can still see a close relationship between Garner and the key subjects or characters and theme of this work.  The influence this close relationship has on her writing has given the novel a depth, I don’t believe, would be otherwise possible. It is detailed in its descriptions of the characters and the acts performed, showing an almost clinical detachment on occasion, almost like the emotion is closed off, ‘Listen…She’s rattling. She’ll die soon.’, (Garner, 2008) a symptom we see many people do when they come into contact with their own mortality or that of loved ones.

This work is supposed to be a fictional novel, and although I personally know that Garner writes from direct experiences some readers likely wouldn’t. So, while I would argue this isn’t a ‘straight fiction’ it is categorised as one none the less. Fictional accounts of things are easy to dismiss as just that fiction, however Garner writes in a way that enthrals the reader. It is difficult for her writing style not to have an intense emotional impact.  It was the theme of this work that had the biggest affect on me as a reader. I found myself reading on in an almost morbid fascination. I wanted to see where this would go, how far would Garner take it? How in depth would she go into the death of a friend? How descriptive would she become towards the end? Would she go into a profound, highly personal account of the macabre mortality of a human life? I was so captivated by her style of this account that I actually went out and bought a copy of The Spare Room. This in depth theme of death reminds me of a quote from a cult movie, (Benson N/A).

When you’re a little kid you never think that you’ll die. I mean, death is just some obscure aleatory thing that you see on TV or read about in a book. Then one day you realise what it really is and nothing is ever the same again.  From that day on you’re fucked. (00:38-00:54)

It is movies and fictions like these that make you redefine your way of thinking, almost like you are consciously embracing your ability to realise human mortality.  The Spare Room is a graphic insight into death and the desperate attempt to slow the inevitable.

This essay attempted to analyse an excerpt from the fictional novel The Spare Room written by Helen Garner.  To successfully examine this work, this writer will explored the theme of the work and why it is a delicate subject in popular culture; studied the relationship between the writer and the key subject(s) and how this has influenced the work; and analysed the declared genre and how it has influenced my personal reception of the text as a reader.


Works Cited. 

“Australian Bureau of Statistics – Leading Causes of Death.” 2013. Accessed September 10. http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/3303.0Chapter42011.

Benson, Amber. N/A. Chance. Comedy, Drama.

“Cancer – Physical Symptoms in the Last 2 to 3 Months of Life.” 2013. Accessed September 10. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/nearingtheendoflife/nearingtheendoflife/nearing-the-end-of-life-physical-symptoms.

Garner, H. 2002. “I.” 61 (1). Meanjin: 40–43.

Garner, H. 2008. “Chapter One.” In The Spare Room, 1–18. Melbourne: Text Publishing.

Creative Commons License
The Spare Room by Sheridan Brownlie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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