I’ve just finished “The Spare Room” by Helen Garner. I knew that it was going to be a difficult read, how could it be anything but, telling the story of two old friends, one who is dying of cancer and sleeps in the other’s spare room for 3 weeks. The line between fiction and fact blurs – the narrator is called Helen, and Garner is known to have nursed a terminally ill friend. It is beautifully written and shines with truth.
Garner is apparently well known for her nonfiction and sometimes controversial journalism. She has said: “Writing novels is like trying to make a patchwork quilt look seamless. A novel is made up of scraps of our own lives and bits of other people’s, and things we think of in the middle of the night and whole notebooks full of randomly collected details.” I love this. It seems exactly what fiction is, a hodge podge of observations, musings and feelings.
In the novel Nicola goes to stay with Helen so that she can access some alternative therapy in a nearby clinic. Helen’s scepticism is the readers, we know there is not going to be a happy ever after. The prose is crisp and clean. There’s no sentimentality. The soaked sheets, wet with urine and sweat, the brutality of cancer, and Helen’s fury, are plainly writ. Nicola’s glued on smile and polite social face are irritating and endearing as she struggles to accept her approaching death.
Garner writes: “It was barely one o’clock and I was wide awake and staring-eyed. I thought I could hear movement in the kitchen, perhaps a voice murmuring, but it was a matter of urgency that I should get to sleep before two, the hour at which the drought, the dying planet, and all the faults and meannesses of my character would arrive to haunt me.” Oh yes, I know that hour well.
In the end the character Helen can’t bear to nurse her sick friend longer than the agreed 3 weeks, she is sizzling with anger and Garner bravely displays her flaws. She is human, as real as you and I. It’s a brilliant sad, achy, and honest book.