Re-posted from my old blog…
One of the books I nabbed while up at the EIBF was Helen Garner’s praise-showered new novel The Spare Room. Although I was greatly looking forward to reading it, there was the burden of expectation. I had barely read a critical word anywhere – blog or newspaper – and it was even the very last copy on the book tent shelf. Would I end up agreeing with Jamie Byng, and consider it a travesty that this novel was left off the Booker longlist?
In short, yes, yes, oh yes. How could the judges have ignored this wonderful book? How could they have plumped for that clumsy thriller over this frank, clearly-written, and extraordinarily moving novel?
The Spare Room opens with Helen preparing a room in her house for the arrival of her friend Nicola. Nicola has stage 4 bowel cancer. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy have both failed to erase the tumour, but Nicola remains maddeningly upbeat and places all her hope (and much of her money) in the decidedly dodgy Theodore Institute, who claim to be able to cure her cancer by way of vitamin C drips, coffee enemas, and oxygen cupping. Needless to say, these treatments are utter nonsense, and leave Nicola is extreme agony as her cancer expands and spreads and takes over. Still, though, she insists to Helen that the pain is not the illness, but the toxins being removed from her body. In the face of this unbridled optimism and blind faith, Helen bristles and grows angry. The truth about Nicola’s terminal cancer is all too plain to her, and she is frustrated by Nicola’s inability – or refusal – to see it.
This novel explores the bonds of friendship as they are pulled and slackened by this emotional rollercoaster. While not without its moments of black comedy – not least concerning the aforementioned coffee enemas – there is much here that is desperate and moving. Helen Garner is known for using elements of autobiography in her fiction, and indeed much of this novel is apparently informed by her own experience of nursing a friend through the final stages of cancer, with even the main character taking the author’s own first name. This has seemingly led to much discussion of the resulting value of the work as a novel, but I must say that I agree whole-heartedly with Stevie Davies who in her review of The Spare Room for The Independent said:
It’s a fiction about truth; about witnessing to truth – and, disturbingly, about enforcing it upon the dying. A hymn to friendship tested to its limits, the novel is also a manifesto and a confession.
A confession indeed, as we see Helen struggling to cope with the heavy practicalities of nursing an extremely sick person. At the beginning of the novel Helen thinks “How competent I was! I would get a reputation for competence,” but soon she is facing the grim reality of cancer: the many changes of sweat-sodden bedsheets; the daily lumping of the mattress outside to air in the Melbourne sun; the endless attempts to cook good, nutrious food for the patient; not to mention the emotional strain as Helen tries to grit her teeth against Nicola’s faith in quackery. She almost implodes with anger when she discovers that Nicola has only brought one pair of shoes – flimsy black ballet slippers – which are utterly unsuitable for a period of heavy rain. We also see Helen grappling with the idea that death is in her house, and that it will come to her some day too, with the bluntly honest lines:
I learned to wash her arse as gently as I had washed my sister’s and my mother’s, and as some day someone will have to wash mine.
And this blunt honesty is part of what makes this slight novel (under 200 pages with reasonably large print) so wonderful. We are not sheltered from the highs and lows of emotion as Nicola finally relents in the face of Helen’s ultimate outburst and admits that “death is at the end of this”. The beguiling simplicity of Garner’s writing makes the characters all incredibly real, and I defy anyone not to wonder how they would cope in the face of such love and pressure and sadness. The ending, too, is pitched perfectly, a coda that says so much in so little.
The Spare Room should have been on the Booker longlist, and the shortlist too if I may be so bold. A maddening omission from the list, and a novel that deserves all the praise it can get.