The Spare Room
By Helen Garner
This wonderful book has taken me on an powerful emotional journey. I read it in one afternoon but have thought about it often since. It follows the story of a complex friendship between two older women, a friendship made all the more complex and heart wrenching because one of them is dying. Nicola is a woman in her early 60s in the late stages of cancer. She comes to stay with her friend Helen for a few weeks while she explores alternative therapies to try and cure her cancer.
The book is about friendship, anger, relationships, anguish and the real issues surrounding death, illness, and palliative care. Their long friendship (of “just” 15 years) is tested to its limits as Nicola continues to believe that she will find a cure for her disease and refuses morphine or palliative care, instead relying on her hope, and the support and care of her friends.
The author portrays the full range of Helen's emotions - grief, anger, resentment, frustration and, eventually, despair as she begins to feel that she really cannot cope - quite wonderfully.
Is three weeks really such a long time? In the circumstances she finds herself floundering in, Helen really is finding it a life sentence.
She is regularly kept awake beyond 2am, "the hour at which the drought, the refugee camps, the dying planet, and all the faults and meannesses of my character would arrive to haunt me".
She notices that the treatment clinic that Nicola attends for vitamin C injections is "painted a strange yellow, the colour of controlled panic"
She wryly observes the half a banana "abandoned in its loose, spotty skin", the blood-red nasturtium that blooms; broad beans standing outside the limits of the threatened house, "in hopeful rows"
She appears to become enraged with her own rage and confusion of complex emotions.
'The one thing I was sure of, as I lay pole-axed on my bed that afternoon ... was that if I did not get Nicola out of my house tomorrow I would slide into a lime-pit of rage that would scorch the flesh off me, leaving nothing but a strew of pale bones on a landscape of sand.'
The Spare Room has as its initial central character, Nicola, a woman who a has profound denial of her condition. She wants to be strong, prove how unchanged she is, spend time with her friends, yet fight every step of the way to do it. When Nicola comes to recognise for herself that "Death's at the end of this", peace and friendship can link arms once more.
It was a difficult and sometimes painful book to read yet remained sensitive and true, making me smile and even laugh out loud a couple of times. The tears flowed towards the end as I read as slowly as I could manage in order to both prolong my reading, and avoid the inevitable fate of the characters I had come to know so well. The last few pages were so beautifully written without undue sentimentalisation. Honest and true words were used in a remarkable way.
A book about dying? I believe that it is truly about relationships and issues that may face each of us every day in our lives. In the context of this powerful story if we can begin to relate to Nicola and to Helen, empathise with young Bessie, feel like Iris, find ourselves humming or praying while the buddhist friends chant, we may become closer to understanding how we can improve our own friendships. Isn’t this what we all need to do? We don’t know how much time we have left to love...
Thanks Sophie, this was a remarkable book which took my breath away at the end - and then made me feel uplifted and alive as I breathed a large sigh of relief and happiness