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Analysis of the Spare Room

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  • Pages: 5
  • Word count: 1206
  • Category: Novel

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This essay analyses the opening chapter of Helen Garner’s novel The Spare Room. This essay seeks to determine the relationship between Garner and the key subjects and themes of the book and how this influenced its writing, to detail the research methodology Garner utilized in its creation and to determine to what extent these methods are visible, reliable or objective; to examine the ways in which the declared genre has influenced the reader’s reception of the text; and to analyse how the writer’s use of techniques of representation have shaped the work’s ethical implications. The Spare Room details the fictional story of Helen who plays host to her friend, Nicola, while she pursues alternative therapy for bowel cancer that has been determined to be terminal. It is from this that we understand that the key themes of the narrative are terminal illness, enduring hardship with friends, alternative medicine and ultimately death. Garner revealed in an interview with Jason Steger that the inspiration behind these themes came in the form of shared experiences as she had a friend stay with her who was suffering from terminal cancer and that she was able to draw from these experiences in order to create the text.

Garner told Steger that “It’s much more interesting for me to think that taking a chunk of experience and mushing it up together with other things that are inventible, remembered from some other time or stolen from other people’s stories … and see if I can make it into something that works, an object, a little machine that runs.” It is these real experiences that from the basis of the research undertaken by Garner in order to create the work. Knox (10) declares personal experience to be ‘the toil that we till, and we do so in a way that does impinge on real relationship[s].’ To this end, Garner understands that relationships in her own life have been drastically altered, even destroyed through the use of real life experiences in her work (Legge). Garner craftily weaves together her own personal experiences with her vast general knowledge in order to painstakingly create her tale and leave the unknowing reader none the wiser as to where her experiences end and where invention begins.

This is Garner’s personal mission when she set down to write as she claims that “if you can stitch in the invented stuff with the stuff that comes from the real and people don’t see the stitches, then you know you’re on the right track” (Steger). The most obvious use of reality in the work is the use of the narrator’s name, Helen. The usage of Helen helps establish an unwritten contract between author and reader that the book is not wholly fictional. Knox (12) considers Garner’s work to be a “hybrid of fiction and nonfiction, in which fictional techniques are used to deal with the problems of a nonfiction work.” The contract is the ethical code which for novelists is unwritten, non-binding and, for some, non-existent (Knox, 12). Garner, however, believes that by publishing fiction you are proclaiming that what you are writing “is not supposed to be literally true. Even though it may be very close to real experience, [Garner] has taken the liberties that [she] is allowed to take” and that no matter their size “only a fool reads a novel thinking it’s going to be unvarnished truth” (Steger). In my experience as both reader and writer I agree with – I did not expect Garner’s work to be nonfiction in totality regardless of the experiences that aided her in its writing.

Deborah Hunn in her lecture on the Ethics of Representation offers Gutkind’s explanation of the genre debate by explaining that there are “real demarcation points between fiction, which is or can be mostly imagination; traditional nonfiction (journalism and scholarship), which is mostly information; and creative nonfiction, which presents or treats information using the tools of the fiction writer while maintaining allegiance to fact.” Thus, we gain an understanding that what Garner writes can indeed be categorised, if it must, as being creative nonfiction. This is because The Spare Room is constituted upon the techniques of fiction writing to portray the representations of her experiences to the reader. Despite acknowledging The Spare Room to be a work of creative nonfiction we now arrive at the ethical debate of the representation of her friend. O’Sullivan (265) defines representation as “… the social process of representing, representations are the products of the social process of representing.” Hall (16) quotes the Shorter Oxford Dictionary in order to explain that “to represent something is to describe or depict it, call it up in the mind by description or portrayal or imagination; to place a likeness of it before us in our mind or in the sense. This is important because, as Surma (36) explains, “central to ethics are the responsibilities, obligations and choices moderating the relationship between self and other(s).”

The ethical question that demands answer in Garner’s work is to determine whether Garner should have offered the representation, or to put it as Hunn des, “who has the right to tell another’s story, even if it is part of their own?” Unfortunately, due to the death of Garner’s friend, Knox’s (10) suggestion that permission be sought cannot be achieved. Thus, Garner relies on Knox’s paraphrase that “there was no such thing as a ‘real’ person placed in a novel, because once the person falls into the novel’s ecology, he is transformed into a character.” Despite costing herself a number of relationships over her ethical choices in the past Garner seemingly remain unapologetic to the position that she has taken.

However, Knox (12) has offered support by proclaiming that “Garner, by exposing her biases and weaknesses, has done the responsible thing” from an ethical viewpoint and thus it can be argued has satisfied her obligations. In conclusion, Garner’s The Spare Room is a work of creative non-fiction in that she has created a work combining the shared experiences between herself and a friend who passed away after a battle with cancer and techniques of fictional writing. This essay found that much of the research for the work came in the form of those shared experiences as well as Garner’s vast general knowledge. The ethical dilemma that confronted Garner in writing the book was that of representation – both how she represented her deceased friend and the very decision to write the work – and that ultimately Garner has satisfied her ethical obligations.


Garner, Helen. Excerpt from The Spare Room. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2008. 1-18. Print. Hunn, Deborah. “Ethics of Representation.” PWP110 – Week 3. Curtin University. Perth, Western Australia. 2012. Lecture. Knox, Malcolm. “Should I or Shouldn’t I?: Ethics for Authors.” Australian Author. 37.3(2005). 10-12. Print. Legge, Kate. “Truly Helen.” Weekend Australian[Melbourne, Australia] 29 March 2008, Online Web. 19 Sep. 2012. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/features/truly-helen/story-e6frg8h6-1111115933083 O’Sullivan, Tim et al. Key Concepts in Communication and Cultural Studies. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1994. Print. Steger, Jason. “It’s Fiction and That’s a Fact.” Age[Melbourne, Australia] 29 March 2008, Online. Web. 19 Sep. 2012. . Surma, Anne. Public and Professional Writing: Ethics, Imagination and Rhetoric. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

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