Helen Garner: The Spare Room (2008)
Helen Garner’s The Spare Room was one of the books I found at work. I started it immediately and finished it almost in one sitting. Garner has chosen a difficult topic and written about it beautifully. Despite the sad topic, it’s an uplifting book.
Helen’s friend Nicola is very ill. She has stage four metastatic cancer. This means it’s terminal. Chances that she will recover are less than minimal. Looking for a miracle cure she asks her friend if she can stay with her in Melbourne for three weeks. Helen doesn’t know any details. She doesn’t know that Nicola is in denial. She just wants to help her friend and accepts.
Nicola always used to believe in alternative medicine. But what works for all sorts of ailments, does not work for terminal cancer. Many late stage cancer patients cannot accept the fact that they are dying which makes them an easy prey for frauds and con men. The clinic Nicola will visit during her stay is not much different. The cure has no value but terrible side effects. And it costs a fortune. What Nicola would really need is palliative care but she thinks getting palliative care will speed up her death.
Caring for her friend is beyond Helen’s strengths. Like Nicola, she is over 60 and washing sweaty bed sheets every night, seeing her friend in horrible pain and denial sucks all her energy from her.
“It’s just that in my work,” said Carmel, “I’ve learnt that there are people who never, ever face the fact that death’s coming to them. They go on fighting right up to their last breath.” She paused. “And it is one way of doing it.”
This must sound like a bleak story but it’s not. It’s honest and even funny, stripped of everything but the bare reality. The worst part is that the two women have to live a fake relationship as Nicola doesn’t want to accept she will not be cured. She smiles constantly, pretending everything is alright. She doesn’t want to feel her emotions and in doing so triggers them in others. All those who care for her feel desperate, sad and angry while she keeps on grinning.
When Helen is at the end of her strength, she confronts her demonstrating that sometimes you really have to be cruel to be kind. When they finally speak openly about the fake cure and the probability that Nicola will die, things get better and they are able to live moments of true friendship again.
Oh, I loved her for the way she made me laugh. She was the least self-important person I knew, the kindest, the least bitchy. I couldn’t imagine the world without her.
I devoured this book. Its spare prose is beautiful. Its honesty was soothing.
I’ve seen this happen quite a few times around me. People get very ill, terminally ill but until the last moment they deny it. No real conversations are possible and what little time is left is spent chasing a miracle cure.
But Garner goes one step further. She also writes about the caregiver and how incredibly strong you must be to perform the tasks which are needed. How much you may come to hate the person who depends on you because it’s so tiring and stressful.
The Spare Room is astonishing because it’s so well written and manages to be ultimately uplifting through its gentle humour, honesty and in showing what true friendship can achieve.
This review is my first contribution to the Aussie Author Challenge 2013
We all know that search engines work in mysterious ways that’s why I add this caveat:
For anyone reading this who is afflicted by cancer or has friends or family who are ill, please be aware, that the case in this book is not just a simple case. It’s a stage four metastatic cancer. I’m saying this because I don’t want to rob anyone of their hope. Many cancer patients, especially when their illness has been discovered early on, can be cured, notably when the tumour is operable. There are but a few types like the very aggressive malignant glioblastoma multiforme which leave you with hardly any chance.