Book review: The Crying Room, Gretchen Shirm

A (slow) moving meditation on the bonds and frays of family ties.

The Crying Room follows three generations of women: Bernie, her daughters Allison and Susie, and Allison’s daughter, Monica. The novel maps the intricate and intangible nature of familial relationships, the ways they can bend and stretch and – sometimes – break. The ways that love can smother and sustain us.

Gretchen Shirm’s second novel is an outstanding literary achievement. The Crying Room follows in the footsteps of Australian literary icons such as Helen Garner and Gail Jones (who have both endorsed the novel) in its sharp and exquisite rendering of emotional experience. 

Shirm’s lyrical and reflective prose allows readers to empathise with each character even as their actions may not, at first, endear them to us. This applies predominantly to Bernie, whose distant parenting style has left an indelible mark on her daughters – Allison is aloof and judgemental, Susie is sensitive and warm. It is only as an adult that Bernie recognises the impact of her behaviour, and wishes things were different.

History repeats itself in Allison’s relationship with her daughter, Monica, who finds comfort and solace living with Susie. The antithesis of her mother and sister, ‘Susie’s approach was to spend time with Monica and to love her so that one day she would know how to give that love herself.’    

The novel is narrated at different points by Bernie, Susie, Allison and Monica. Through her use of multiple perspectives, Shirm invites readers to consider how a single interaction can be interpreted in vastly different ways, how a single well-intentioned phrase can eviscerate the recipient, and a relationship. 

Creativity is one of the novel’s minor themes, explored through Monica’s participation in a writing class. Several chapters of The Crying Room, readers learn, are excerpts from Monica’s work. The inclusion of notes between Monica and her editors simultaneously reveals the intensity that writing demands (as Monica ‘had spent hours with [her] characters; in some cases years’) and, momentarily, lifts the reader out of the story.

The Crying Room is a quiet novel, unfolding slowly, each chapter revealing a new layer of the narrator’s inner world. It is slightly jarring, then, that the final chapters seem to leap forward in time, ending certain storylines without offering them the space they deserve on the page.

Read: Book review: The Terrible Event, David Cohen

Ultimately, The Crying Room is a reflection on and celebration of love, a powerful and compelling novel that cements Shirm’s position as a writer to be reckoned with. It’s a must-read for fans of literary fiction, particularly those who admire the work of Kristina Olsson or Stephanie Bishop.

The Crying Room by Gretchen Shirm
Publisher: Transit Lounge
ISBN: 9780645565379
Paperback: 249pp 
RRP: $32.99
Published: July 2023

Laura Pettenuzzo (she/her) is a disabled writer based in Naarm. Her words have appeared in SBS Voices, ABC Everyday, Mascara Literary Review and The Guardian. She is also a member of the Victorian Disability Advisory Council.