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Sunday, 14 June 2009
The Spare Room
by Helen Garner
The Spare Room begins with a quote from Australian novelist Elizabeth Jolley: ‘It is a privilege to prepare the place where someone else will sleep.’ This quote quieted my spirit, as did the description of Helen preparing a room for her soon-to-arrive terminally ill friend Nicola, before throwing me into what is a very intimate examination of the burden imminent death can put on the living.
The Spare Room didn’t read like a work of fiction; it seemed a factual account of two friends tested beyond endurance. I’ve learned that the writer Helen Garner had nursed a terminally ill friend. Maybe that is why The Spare Room is not at all sentimental; rather it’s cruelly down to earth, a tide that surges between tenderness and brutal truth as for three harrowing weeks the women battle with each other.
When her bohemian friend Nicola arrives, weak and ill, Helen is launched into nursing care. She puts her life on hold and at first pretends to share Nicola's hopes for a miracle cure. Nicola has come to undergo a three-week program of quack treatments. On seeing the clinic, Helen’s description is telling: it ‘is painted a strange yellow, the color of controlled panic.’ She keeps her murderous anger to herself while seeing her friend naked in an ‘ozone sauna’ while charlatans chatter about the miracle of vitamin C injections which ‘sort of scoop the cancer cells out of your body.’ Nicola laughs at Helen's skepticism and explains that the devastation done to her body is ‘only the vitamin C savaging the tumors and driving them out.’
The Spare Room is powerful. The illness of Nicola, the anger of Helen – it is all over quickly, a few weeks gone by in a few reading hours. Helen shares insights on death: ‘It leaches out virtue. It injects poison into friendship, and makes a mockery of love.’ She is so honest in the telling.
Carers are usually portrayed as saintly, but Helen doesn’t hide her irritation at having her life disturbed, often making interjections about trips she must take. Nicola’s refusal to face reality and the impact this has on those around her is told very honestly, not a saint in sight.
This novel will haunt me for years for the things that may be ahead – illnesses of loved ones, friendships tested, loneliness, frustration, anger. Maybe there will be a house with a spare room I will be setting up, or perhaps someone will be setting one up for me.
Reviewed by Denise Covey who blogs at L'Aussie's Writing Blog