Over a long career across so many genres, Helen Garner always manages to weave a spell. The Spare Room, almost novella-like in length, is a deeply felt, rawly honest story which shocked me with its starkness and its beauty. Helen opens up her eponymous spare room to old friend Nicola, who is in Melbourne for three weeks to receive a controversial fringe treatment for her late-stage cancer. What emerges is a conflict on acceptance, health, and the worthiness of a life, all encased in the domesticity of care.
The book opens with a quote from Elizabeth Jolley on the privilege of preparingg the place where someone else will sleep. It is an intimate act. While I don’t relate to a peace found in a nursing or maid-like service, to have your home accepted by someone when they are away from their own denotes a special kind of welcome, another level in the relationship.
And it is this next level of friendship that Nicola calls on Helen. Nicola is dying, and through blind hope, painful faith, ignorant wishes is lashing out, grasping for whatever treatment, alternative or option that will give her a possibility of cure. This is an act of deep denial, and Nicola’s refusal to accept the significance of her pain and the high level of care required means her anger, sadness and rage is deflected off onto those around her. Helen has a deep, deep love for her friend but the rage has to take on is incandescent, unfathomable.
“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.”
It is love made practical and palpable in daily, regular acts. It is unmissable. Every meal shopped for, made, and cleaned up. Thrice-nightly changing of sheets from the night-sweats. Managing the realities of logistics: getting to the clinic, finding somewhere to fill a morphine script, whether or not the walk to the station can even be managed today. Helen wants to do this for her but it is sometimes tragic to see how much time and energy these acts consume. It is another manifestation of a mother’s thankless job. It is unfair. To deny the reality of her situation and the care required, Nicola makes a mockery of Helen’s struggles. But at the same time, of course, anything Helen is going through is nothing compared to Nicola forced to face her own mortality.
There is nothing unnecessary in this book, leaving it feeling sparse and pure. The moments Garner decides to capture are imbued with significance, weighed with importance for their mere inclusion. And the times of humour or beauty can be grasped, just like by Helen, for the relief they provide in the relentlessness of Nicola’s pain and care.
“Against the shed wall the broad beans stood in their hopeful rows, a gratifying green. The sky flushed and turned dusky. The coloured lorikeets darting in and out of next door’s palm tree reminded us of the kookaburra that had swooped one day on her lunch table, snatched in its beak a fist-sized slab of expensive Danish butter, and soared away to a high branch: later we spotted the greedy bird standing in the undergrowth near the tank, leaning forward with its beak agape like a drunk outside a pub.”
It is all about what magic Garner can create with her words. This does not mean it is pretty or sparkling, but that she has created this short novel full of the reality of human feeling. What was previously unacknoweldged manifests humbly and perfectly formed; undeniable. It is a beautiful, haunting read.