The Spare Room follows Helen and Nicola during a few rough weeks in Nicola’s cancer care. Nicola is at stage four and is terminal. Helen has opened up her spare room so that Nicola can visit her old friend and receive treatment at an alternative health care clinic. We meet Helen as she is preparing for Nicola’s arrival. She is confident that she will be able to handle her friend’s visit; she fusses over the rugs, appropriate lighting, and the placement of just the right bunch of flowers. She is worried about what might be appropriate for this particular circumstance, she worries about how her friend will look and how things will be when she arrives. In these few weeks Helen becomes Nicola’s primary caregiver, often sacrificing sleep, work, friends and family, and her own ideals. The premise of the novel is simple, yet Helen Garner beautifully weaves intricate layers of ideas to ponder that will eventually touch each of us.
Slowly through the novel we begin to learn more about the two women’s relationships and about who they are, how they view and cope with death and illness. Helen paints herself as a realist who believes in Western medicine and particularly pain killers to manage Nicola’s increasing discomfort. Nicola, however, has yet to accept the fact that she is nearing the end and frantically clutches to the idea that she will get well. By taking treatment at a suspicious clinic that makes outstanding promises and takes exorbitant amounts of money upfront and whose treatments leave her unbearably ill Nicola feels that the cancer is tearing from her body and that she doesn’t need additional care and support. Helen sees a different side of this and is eventually horrified to discover that the few weeks she was sure she would be able to handle have become unbearable. Garner writes with humor and frankness. We see Helen speed through a battery of emotion for her friend. She is overcome with love, anger, fear, humility, and the realization that death is inevitable.
Three times that night I tackled the bed: stripped and changed, stripped and changed. This was the part I liked, straightforward tasks of love and order that I could perform with ease. We didn’t bother to put ourselves through hoops of apology and pardon. She sat limply on the chair and watched me work.
Horrified sympathy passed along her eye beams. It weakened me. A huge wave of fatigue rinsed me from head to foot. I was afraid I would slide off the bench and measure my length among the cut roses. 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.
I received this book for review from Picador via the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.