Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Spare Room.
In this short, powerful novel, anger and sorrow prove to be the most exhausting of emotions. Helen has grown comfortable with her life, content to keep up an emotional clarity with those around her, especially with her daughter and granddaughter, who live right next door. She lives in a nice house in suburban Melbourne and gets regular work as a writer, but her life is shaken when, like a giant whirlwind, her best friend, Nicola, arrives from Sydney, ostensibly to seek out cancer treatment at the notorious Theodore Institute, but also to stay three weeks with Helen so that they can catch up.
It’s been months since Helen laid eyes on her friend; all she knows about Nicola’s condition is what she can glean from her emails. When Helen picks Nicola up from the airport, she sees a shrunken little woman who can’t sit up straight, her back bowed right over, her neck straining as if under a heavy load, “stripped of flesh and shuddering from head to foot.” Helen is entering the orbit of Nicola’s life just when she most needs her.
Nicola is desperate. The controversial methods at the Theodore Institute are perhaps her last hope, the daily infusions of vast amounts of vitamin C the only possible way that Nicola can conquer her steadily encroaching bowel cancer. She’s determined to put up a good fight and refuses to be discouraged by the increasingly grim news from the doctors in Sydney even as she fanatically turns to alternative medicines to ease her pain.
As the dynamics of their friendship, the patient and the caregiver, play out in doctors’ waiting rooms, lunchtime cafés, and in Helen’s own home, Helen begins to shoulder the ever-increasing burdens of Nicola‘s illness. Skeptical of a medical establishment that seems to be giving her friend false hope, Helen realizes all too quickly that Nicola’s alternative treatments with the Theodore Institute reek of the ineffectual and all seem to be “just a bunch of bullshit.”
Infusing her narrative with self-deprecatory humor, Helen Garner writes from the heart, exposing the deep tensions and vulnerabilities of a middle-aged friendship put to the test. At first, Helen is amazed how easily she falls into the role of caregiver, her confidence growing as her nights are taken up nursing her friend, stripping and bundling, breaking out new linen and refreshing her bed: “These are the parts she liked: straightforward tales of love and order that I could perform with ease.”
For her part, Nicola is forced against her will to adapt to her drastically transformed physicality. She refuses to see the Theodore Institute for what it is: a bunch of charlatans preying on the desperation of the terminally ill. A consummate rebel to the last, Nicola refuses to give up until she’s thrown into ill-humor and confusion by the sweaty, sleepless nights and the pains in her belly as Helen tries to hug and comfort her, the low doses of morphine gradually losing their grip.
Garner contrasts the physicality of Nicola’s steadily deteriorating condition with Helen’s supportive but rollercoaster emotional journey. Afraid of her weakness and afraid of her will, Helen is ironically the first to give in by admitting that she just can’t care for Nicola on her own. As Helen lies in bed at night, seething and staring into the dark, she’s frightened that she’s about to lose control of her life. We ache for both of these women every step of the way. In the end, it is Helen who suffers the most as she journeys toward self-knowledge, perhaps honored that her friend has chosen her in her hour of need.