I think I developed a little intellectual crush on Helen Garner after reading this book. It’s fairly small, but what it lacks in size it makes up in impact (at 5 foot, I have found my literary equivalent). Simple prose and short elegant paragraphs mask the depth of poignancy and emotion in this slender and delicate tome.
The Spare Room is a novel, whose protagonist has the same name as its author, Helen. Helen invites her friend Nicola to stay with her while she seeks an alternate cure for the bowel cancer that is engulfing her frail body. Fiction and non-fiction drift through one another like osmosis as the tale is loosely based on a period in Helen Garner’s own life. Helen (author) had a friend who did indeed stay with her while undergoing cancer treatment. The alternative cancer treatment itself becomes a shadowing character that masks Nicola’s ability to accept her inevitable demise.
At the core of this novel, there is a wonderful celebration of female friendships – the enduring, the tender, and the ugly. Most women of any age can relate to the bond between Helen and Nicola and the mutual emotional dependence at various stages. To me, The Spare Room as a physical space seems to be a metaphor for the deep and affecting friendships held dear by all of us. We all have a spare room and indeed create spare room for those we love the most. It is in these domestic and private spaces in a person’s life that shape and define our humanity as a whole. I love that the Helen character was not afraid to express her frustration and sometimes anger at her dying friend. Her ability to remain authentic even in the face of an oncoming tsunami of grief is a testament to the love she had for Nicola.
When I read this book, I could not help repeating to myself ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’. While Dylan Thomas’ poem may seem at odds when juxtaposed against an eccentric dying artist of her own world, the fighting (even ignorant) spirit of Nicola is hard not to embrace and support. Her belligerence against her illness is almost endearing and I while I appreciated Helen’s frustration at Nicola’s daft fantasies of recovery, her refusal to go down quietly was compelling and inspirational reading.
PS you may need a box of tissues