The Spare Room is a slim volume with a weighty theme. Our first person narrator Helen lives in Melbourne, and the very ill Nicola has flown down from Sydney for a three week stay to undergo alternative cancer treatment at the dubious Theodore Clinic. Helen prepares the spare room for Nicola, knowing she has cancer but not expecting the whirlwind that is about to come blowing through her house and life.
Nicola has stage-four bowel cancer but is in denial, placing faith in positive intentions to overcome the Big C. She believes the Theodore’s shonky vitamin C, cupping and sauna treatments (and coffee enemas) will have the illness on the run within weeks. (As a measure of how left-field vitamin C is as a treatment, I thought they were at first using it as a euphemism for Chemo, as in Vitamin Chemo.)
Helen is the pragmatist, the one who sees through all the ‘bullshit’. She wants to tell Nicola to face facts but she feels uncomfortable stealing the last vestiges of hope from her, to be the one who tells her she is going to die.
Nicola won’t take proper pain medication, something that puts Helen under a lot of strain, feeling that to try to deny death ‘drives madness into the soul’, a fact that is borne out by the way she and Nicola’s other friends take on Nicola’s anger, as if she gives it off like ‘static electricity’. With the countless nightly bedding changes because of Nicola’s night-sweats, the cooking, cleaning, shopping and escorting, as well as the anger at the mountebank Professor Theodore, it’s no wonder Helen becomes increasingly frustrated.
The whole story is moving, but the heart-rending confrontation when it comes is particularly so. In between there are moments of warmth and levity, with the company of grandchildren enjoyed and jokes shared (including a hilarious debate about the quality of coffee used for those enemas – organic or instant?!).
Part of Garner’s appeal is her sparse prose, which gives the story added authority. Garner draws on her experience of caring for friend Jenya Osbourne when Osbourne was dying, a fact that shows through on every page. The Spare Room reads more like memoir than fiction. Whatever the label we might put on it, though, it has an authenticity that speaks to all of us.
It’s Garner at her best, but then, when is she not?
The Spare Room by Helen Garner
Source: the local municipal library