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The Spare Room – Helen Garner – 8/10

“How competent I was! I would get a reputation for competence.”

(from the blurb because I can’t say it better) Helen lovingly prepares her spare room for her friend Nicola who is coming to stay. For the next three weeks, while Nicola undergoes treatment she believes will cure her advanced cancer, Helen becomes her nurse, her servant, her guardian angel and her stony judge. The Spare Room is an unforgettable story about what happens to a friendship when the chips are down.

It transpires that much of the subject matter of The Spare Room did come from Garner’s personal experience (see interview with Dovegreyreader), and given its brutal honesty, it is part novel, part confessional.

While the focus of the book is very much the conflict between Helen’s pragmatic view (Nicola is dying) and Nicola’s idealistic/fantastic view (daily overdoses of Vitamin C will cure her cancer), I felt the issue of the friends’ behaviour towards one another was also a key theme: Helen is tirelessly caring but very sceptical and in one spectacular and brutal confrontation, demands that Nicola accept the inevitable and give up her belief in the expensive quackery; Nicola appears predominantly ungrateful and does not acknowledge Helen’s efforts. For such good friends (and I’m not certain that the book includes any references to the occasion of their meeting), their personalities seem oddly discordant.

However, both key characters and the support cast of doctors and family (especially Nicola’s niece Iris) are well-sketched and kept simple; the sparse writing (195 pages of well-spaced large font) does not need or permit space to be squandered on fleshing out the bit parts. Helen is not flawless, she seethes with resentment which can only bubble over once she has safety in numbers on her side of the debate. She bosses Nicola around (admittedly only after Nicola has proven unreceptive to gentler treatment) in a manner not entirely becoming of a long-time friend and current nursemaid.

I’ve read quite a few books this year chronicling a character’s last days (The Love Verb, Before I Die) and I was not as moved by Nicola’s plight as I was by the dying characters in these others. Perhaps because the tragedy is not Nicola’s illness but the conflict in the friendship and perspectives.

As regular readers of RFBT will know, I’m an Australian with a nationality crisis, and I was really touched to find reference to a part of the world I know very well:

“Nicola lived beyond the northern beaches of Sydney on a hillside that could be reached only by boat. For years she had chugged back and forth in a tinnie between Palm Beach jetty and the landing below her house, a ten-minute ride in fine weather… She sat at the tiller, erect and handsome as a duchess in loose garments that the wind ballooned and rippled, her silver hair streaming flat against her skull… The first time I went to stay a weekend, she dared me to climb the bush-choked escarpment that soared up behind her shack to Kuringai Chase. We clawed our way to the top, grunting and cursing, and hauled ourselves, two filthy, panting hags, out of the scrub on to a track along which at that moment came strolling a city couple in pale, freshly ironed sporting clothes, with a Shih-tzu trotting on a leash…”

Garner lives in Melbourne but she has nailed life on Pittwater perfectly.

A very good book, not as brilliant as I was hoping, but certainly not a waste of an afternoon.

Other reviews: The Guardian; A Salted; a book group discussion with Elizabeth Baines; Neel Mukherjee; Savidge Reads; Other Stories; Dovegreyreader; New York Times; Biblioklept

Additional info:
This was borrowed from The Book Accumulator.
Publisher: Text Publishing, 195 pages (paperback)
Order The Spare Room from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this, which goes towards giveaways.

4 thoughts on “The Spare Room – Helen Garner – 8/10”

  1. Garner is such a wonderfully honest writer. I liked this book a lot too, although I wasn’t sure about Garner mining her own life and telling the story of her friend’s death. I read that she was driven by rage about quack cancer “treatments”, and the fact that she came off in a less than perfect light seemed to make the trade-off okay, I think.

  2. I agree with you Violet. It is Garner’s fearless honesty that makes me love her even when I don’t agree with her – that and her wonderful tight prose. she’s so evocative, but she doesn’t waster words.

    I haven’t been through her experience here but I can understand feeling the way she does … The frustration. I’m not suf I’d react the same way but I think I’d have some of the same feelings. And Tea, I think the book is not so much about Nicola’s dying as you wonder which is perhaps why you weren’t as moved. I don’t think that lessens this book. It just makes it different.

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