Helen Garner: The Spare Room
Helen Garner is a new name to me, having recently discovered a number of her books were available in the Penguin Modern Classics range, albeit only in her native Australia. Reading around, it seems her work deals autobiographically with elements of her life. But after her 1992 novel, Cosmo Cosmolino, she effectively stopped writing fiction and now, sixteen years later, has returned with The Spare Room (2008), another take on her life, and, given that the narrator shares her name, lifestyle, and talents, it may just be her most personal yet.
While the novel has moments of comic relief, one can’t ignore that death underlies it. Opening with Helen preparing her spare room, plumping pillows and airing it out, it may hint at a new beginning, but she’s doing this because her friend Nicola, diagnosed with bowel cancer, is coming to Melbourne to stay for three weeks while receiving alternative treatment from the Theodore Institute, a local clinic.
Said clinic, charging two thousand dollars a week and manned by unprofessional staff, runs on the ideas of its founder, Professor Theodore, a quack with some strange ideas about medicine:
‘High dosage vitamin C will kill off lumps of cancer and boost the immune system. And our ozone sauna treatment is based on the old natural-therapy approach to cancer – sweating out the toxins. Most doctors don’t know this stuff. But it’s good science.’
Outfits like this, as Helen notes, “tended to keep people linked to them in cloudy hope, right to the end.” And linked to it Nicola most certainly is, walking around with a permanent smile on her face, worrying for others rather than herself, and flat out refusing to acknowledge the truth that she’s going to die. (“‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘It’s the treatments causing the pain – that’s how I know they’re working. It’s just the toxins coming out.'”)
The relationship between the two women is in turns comic (on the subject of coffee enemas) and downright heart-breaking. Helen’s journey as friend and carer is punctuated by ugly thoughts, worryingly detailed, as Nicola infuriates her again and again with her embracing of dodgy treatments and her mustn’t-grumble attitude. It’s certainly a far cry from Helen’s sister, herself dead from cancer:
She accepted her death sentence quietly, without mutiny; perhaps, we thought in awe, she even welcomed it. She laid down her gun. She let us cherish her.
In further contrast, Helen’s sister was a nurse who believe in western medicine, whereas:
…in recent years, shortly before [Nicola] became ill, Buddhist terms had entered her discourse. She knew how to pronounce rinpoche and where to get a ticket when the famous ones were coming to town. She subjected herself to ten-day vipassana boot camps in the Blue Mountains: her account of these speechless ordeals were shaped to make me laugh, but she always came back to the city elated. She referred casually to weekend teachings, and to new friends with names that sounded made up; she had taken to wearing little thread bangles, or a string of knobbly, dark red wooden beads. So I imagined that somewhere in her free-wheeling nature she was quietly equipping herself, as everyone must, with whatever it is one needs to die.
In The Spare Room there’s lessons for both sides, although being told from Helen’s perspective, we never truly get inside Nicola’s mind, but this is skillfully circumvented by the right portion of dialogue or crisp description that hints at unreachable depths. In anger, there’s the need to be kind (“Dying was frightening.”) and in that no matter if you look the other way, you can’t cheat death:
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.
While the story between the two women works extremely well, the inclusion of too much of Garner’s non-fictional life, such as her ukulele playing, feels a tad superfluous, even if it is a comfort to her fictional self. But to document one’s feelings on a heart wrenching topic, and to do it in such a warts-and-all way, creates an real empathy for the narrator and, by extensions, Garner herself, who expertly conjures up the memory of a friend to fleetingly fill the room she left spare.
July 29, 2008