The Spare Room
Fiction; Contemporary Literature
Picked this one to review for the Amazon Vine program. I've never heard of Helen Garner and apparently this is her first fiction in quite a while - 15 years or so, I think - but she's one I'll be on the lookout for in the future. This is a beautiful, haunting novel that feels like a rare jewel in that way some books do. It's too brief, and that's the first compliment I give it, a rare one given the simple yet devastating subject matter: a woman caring for a friend who is dying in the last stages of cancer. Not something I would normally want to dig into for too long and generally, the more abbreviated the better. Death is easy; the process of dying is one of those unspeakable things; the enormous white elephant in the room. Many writers have touched it, some with more success than others, but I don't think any book I've read on the subject captures the jarring mix of comedy, love and grief this one does.
The very first chapter begins sweetly and powerfully with a quote from fellow Australian writer Elizabeth Jolley: "It is a privilege to prepare the place where someone else will sleep." Helen (although this is put out as a novel, the protagonist is named Helen and the story is told in the first person, so I do wonder if it's more fact than fiction) is lovingly setting up her spare room for her friend Nicola, pondering carefully over every element: would Nicola prefer the flat pillow or the bulky one? Was she allergic to feathers? Should there be a rug? What if she caught a toe in it and fell? She's dying - does a dying woman want a mirror nearby or not? Would she want to see herself? But what if she's insulted because a mirror was conspicuously absent?
An independent, eccentric free spirit who has never married or had children, Nicola has a small circle of friends she's turning to for help, and that's how Helen sees herself - as one link in the chain of care, because no one can take it all. The heart-rending issue is that Nicola is valiantly and ferociously fighting off death, and it's painfully obvious to everyone but her that the end is very, very near. Her refusal to accept it, on any level, creates a tension around her so tight and riddled with anger and grief that you can feel it in every word. The world of conventional medicine will no longer treat her except for hospice care, so she has glommed on desperately to every bit of holistic theory, from the legitimate to utter quackery, with the kind of blind cheerfulness a person in complete denial must adopt. "It's just the toxins being flushed out," she reassures Helen over and over again, bent double by the latest vitamin C infusion, in a voice ravaged by pain and depletion. The confrontation will have to come, and the agony is not knowing when or how. For Helen, the nights are the longest. Nicola's denial is exhausting. Sympathy from others, for Helen, is even worse. "It weakened me. A huge wave of fatigue rinsed me from head to foot. I was afraid I would slide off the bench and measure my length among the cut roses. At the same time a chain of metallic thoughts went clanking through my mind, like the first dropping of an anchor: 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."
Reviewers and fellow authors, including Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones; Lucky) are already calling it the perfect novel, deceptively conversational yet brimming with an almost otherworldly grace. It's not the kind of book that will shoot to the top of the bestseller lists, and frankly, it's too good for that.
The Spare Room will be released in the U.S. in February 2009 and for my money is not one to be missed.