The Spare Room by Helen Garner


Another wonderful book reviewed in Reading Matters.  It was sad to read about a woman of very nearly my own age who deals with a situation that confronts us all.  The narrator (Helen) takes in her old friend Nicola who is dying of cancer.  Nicola has run the course of all the conventional treatments and now has come to Melbourne for a useless, very debilitating and quacky sort of treatment as part of her denial of the circumstances.  She resists taking pain medication, declaring she will be fit as ever after the treatment.

Helen has tried to prepare herself to cope with the stress, hard work, and sleeplessness for the three weeks of the treatment, but finds the denial almost unbearable.

…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.

Helen finds herself in a state of incoherent rage when she confronts the doctor who runs the quack clinic.  She goes out on her veranda and catches sight of a neighbor's guinea pig and muses on their moronic nibbling and their pointless busyness, and calls them lumps with fur. 

What was the matter with me?  How could I hate a creature for leading its tiny, inoffensive life in the corner of somebody's yard?

And she quotes from King Lear,

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all?

The three weeks and the treatment do come to an end, and Nicola goes back to Sydney where other friends, as well as Helen, take turns caring for her in a much better setting.  Helen, along with others, is essentially successful in getting Nicola to confront her mortality in a more realistic way.

There are some lighthearted moments in the book, including some characterizations of Helen's granddaughter who lives next door.  Bessie wants to go to the airport with Helen to pick up Nicola; "I want to tell Nicola I'm five and a half.  I think she'll be very surprised."

And I loved this phrase:  as Helen waits for Nicola at a hospital she says she "refreshed my expertise in the scandalous lives of celebrities."

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