No 461 The Spare Room by Helen Garner

On the surface, Helen Garner’s sharp and insightful novella The Spare Room, is a relatively straightforward tale of friendship under duress.

Nicola has stage-four bowel cancer and has decided to abandon traditional treatments in favour of a punishing alternative regime. She is coming to Melbourne to attend the Theodore Institue for a three-week course of intravenous Vitamin C, peroxide drips and healing ozone saunas. While there, she has been invited to stay in her friend Helen’s spare room. She and Helen are old friends from their bohemian days and Helen is looking forward to bonding with Nicola again, caring for her in her time of need and feeling virtuous in the process. After all, this is what good friends do for one another.

‘How competent I was!’ she thinks to herself. ‘I would get a reputation for competence.’

It soon becomes apparent that Helen hasn’t quite known what she has let herself in for. Nicola is sick, very sick and the alternative treatments are making her worse. Helen is nothing if not capable, taking Nicola to her appointments, preparing light meals and changing her soaked sheets in the night, but the task of full-time nursing, coupled with Nicola’s blind belief in the treatments she is recieving, soon put their friendship to the test.

As Nicola resolutely refuses to face the fact that she is terminally ill, Helen finds she is required to collude with her in the belief that the intravenous doses of vitamin C can really ‘scoop the cancer cells out of your body’. This, however, is not Helen’s way and she knows that for thir friendship to survive, Nicola must face the truth of her impending death. Helen’s exhaustion with Nicola comes not from the sheer hard work of caring for a sick person, but from Nicola’s constant smiling refusal to confront what is really happening.

Death will not be denied. To try is grandiose. It drives madness into the soul. It leaches out virtue. It injects poison into friendship and makes a mockery of love.

The Spare Room is a difficult book asking difficult questions about how we face death and how we deal with those who are dying, yet these tangled questions are handled with a lightness of touch and wonderful unaffected dialogue that never rings false. There is an honesty to the writing here. It is evident that Helen adores her friend, but her helpless rage as she finds she cannot help Nicola until Nicola helps herself, threatens to engulf their relationship.

Although death is at the centre of The Spare Room, Garner also emphasises the small moments of joy that make up life and the experience of living. A dancing granddaughter, a breathtaking magic trick, new buds on a flower – in the midst of everything is life and this is depicted as unsentimentally as Nicola’s pain.

In the closing pages of this stunning novella, where Garner condenses the final months of Nicola’s life into a few short pages, she beautifully depicts the power of love to transform the final journey that faces us all.

The Spare Room manages to be steadfastly, almost stubbornly forensic in it’s depiction of illness and the toll that illness takes on both the sufferer and those around them, but it is also a wonderfully uplifting and life-affirming read.

I read The Spare Room for both Novellas in November and Aus Reading Month, hosted by Brona’s Books.


Novellas in November Reading Challenge The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

29 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I’m glad your novella month has got off to a good start even if you did begin with a tough one, Cathy. I read this when it first came out in 2008 then again last year and it certainly stood up to that second reading.


  2. Annabel mentioned this one on my recent review of What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez, which has a very similar setup of a friend helping out a woman dying of cancer. (Another I’ve read along the same lines is Talk before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg.) Looks right up my street!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been meaning to read this for years now and hope to get to it by the end of this month.
    After losing my father-in-law three years I hadn’t been feeling strong enough for this until now – your review has helped me to realise that I think I can manage it after all. Thanks.
    PS I’ve added your link for this review to the masterpost linky for AusreadingMonth.


  4. Wow this was a pretty much perfect read. It’s so simply written, but everything is so appropriately chosen. So right from the beginning, it’s so intense, Helen’s desire to make things right for Nicola, down to the tiniest details, that also make the scene so alive, which in a way is ironic, but in a way isn’t – because sometimes the closeness of death does make everything more intense. And the psychological details of how each friend reacts to their situation is very convincing and telling of each of their histories. It almost felt to me as if the atmosphere of fear/anger/love was so thick that it was a character in itself.


  5. Loved this book, one of my takeouts was how we see our compassion and enthusiasm to support and help and rescue; enthusiasm has limits, when the supported doesn’t fall into line (and be a grateful patient) … the compassion becomes flimsy. Love falters but doesn’t fail.


  6. I love this book Cathy, and I’m so glad you did too. One of the things I really like about Garner, besides her wonderful writing, her beautifully clear sentences, is her absolute commitment to honesty, something that comes through loud and clear in this book. (Sorry I’m so late commenting. I can’t sleep tonight so am sweeping through my backlog blog emails.)

    Liked by 1 person

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