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.
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