The Spare Room by Helen Garner

7131439In November, Brona hosted an Australian Reading month. I read Helen Garner’s The Spare Room for the event (though I didn’t get to review it in time), a book I happened to find when I was reorganizing. I’m glad it caught my eye, because it is a well-written, precise, and sometimes shockingly honest look at friendship in time of crisis.

Nicola is a vivacious, open-minded woman, a dreamer who enjoys living on the edge. She and Helen have been friends for several decades, but unlike Helen, Nicola has no immediate family. Now she suffers from Stage Four cancer, and she is coming to Sydney for an alternative cancer treatment. Helen is more down to earth, a practical, no-nonsense woman. She is more than happy to help Nicola, but at the same time, she is a bit mystified by how Nicola is treating her illness.

“You work with cancer patients,” I said. “Does this sound bad?”
He shrugged. “Pretty bad. Stage four.”
“How many stages are there?”
“Four.”
The bowl was empty. I put down my fork. “What am I supposed to do?”
He put his hand on the dog’s head and drew back its ears so that its eyes turned to high slits. “Maybe that’s why she’s coming to stay. Maybe she wants you to be the one.”
“What one?”
“The one to tell her she’s going to die.”

Much of the book takes place over the span of only three weeks. Even though Nicola tries to pretend she is doing well, Helen is soon exhausted from sleepless nights spent trying to make Nicola as comfortable as possible. She doesn’t trust the alternative treatment that Nicola is undergoing. In the past, Nicola has fallen for a number of scams, and Helen is afraid that this might be another one. At the same time, she doesn’t want to discourage Nicola or keep reminding her that death is close. The two women’s friendship is palpable throughout the book, but it is truly tested because they have such a different idea of how to tackle the fight against cancer.

“It’s not the work. I’m glad to do that—I want to do it. But I’m scared when you’re in this sort of pain and you haven’t even got a pill that works. Maybe we should call the local palliative people. Just in case. So they know we exist.”
She raised both palms. “No. I won’t have anything to do with palliative.”
“Why?” I asked dully, knowing the answer.
“Because it’s the last thing before death.”
The word was in the room. I had dragged her to it. I looked at her there on the lavender sofa, fighting to hide her terror, and my heart contracted into a knot of pity, love, and rage.

Neither Helen nor Nicola is an entirely likeable character. Nicola simply expects people to put their lives on hold to help her, and Helen is angered by this expectation. At the same time, she feels guilty for being angry with someone who won’t live much longer. This dynamic is what drives the book as it explores how people react to terminal illness. I found it interesting to read, especially after I found out that the author based the story on personal experience. But it might be too blunt for some readers, especially if they know someone who is currently battling cancer.

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17 comments

    • It is a very emotionally honest book, and it is hard to read. Garner does a wonderful job balancing grief and anger, and I think if either woman had been just a bit more likeable, I definitely would have cried. But it is not the kind of book that pushes your buttons to make you cry.

  1. The first thought that came into my mind when I read “shockingly honest look at friendship in time of crisis” was On the Beach by Nevil Shute. I read it 2013 for Brona’s AusReadingMonth. That was the book that lingerd in my mind with the question ” what would you do in the same situation’…inevitable death. Chilling and I agree, you have to be prepared to read abou difficult situations…

    • Yes, I definitely think this is emotionally honest. It could not have been easy to write this book. I liked that the book didn’t take sides. I could empathize with both women, even though I didn’t entirely like either one. That was well done.

  2. I wonder if it is better to think of this book as a fictionalised memoir, rather than a work of fiction based on real life events?
    I do like Garner’s straight forward writing style – its to the emotional impact of what she’s saying (in my mind).

    Thanks for joining in AusReading Month – hope to see you again next year 🙂

    • I liked that term… fictionalized memoir. It’s fitting. I would like to read more of Garner’s writing, because I really enjoyed her style. That’s one possibility for next year’s AusReading Month.

  3. Garner’s simple prose is so powerful and it evokes so many different emotions from the reader. But I think it’s a good book for anyone to read about death, and perhaps even more important for those dealing with the impending death of others. Good review!

    • I agree that the prose is definitely a strong point of this book and it makes the reader think. It’s a very honest book about a difficult subject. Some years ago, I had to deal with the cancer death of someone who was very close, so a lot of what was said in this book struck home.

  4. This sounds like an interesting friendship dynamic, but a scary subject. I will have to put this one on the list of books for when I am in the right frame of mind. Even more interesting that it is based on her personal experience.

    • I didn’t even realize it was the same name until I was almost done with the book. I’m not sure what that says about my reading process. In this case, I liked that neither woman was entirely likeable because it underscored that there are no easy answers, like you say.

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