The Spare Room: Helen Garner
Helen Garner’s new novel starts with a woman called ‘Helen’ putting out fresh sheets for a friend who’s coming to stay, and thinking: what colour should they be? Helen’s friend, Nicola – lovely, playful, careless, aristocratic Nicola – needs all the help she can get. She has cancer in her liver and her bones.
Over the next three weeks, Helen will change Nicola’s sweated-through sheets again and again, bring her food and drink, and drive her to the shabby little Theodore Institute to get the strange treatments that Nicola believes will make her cancer ‘disappear.’
Much of the special charge of The Spare Room is that of a fiction that seems to have been made very close to the writers’ life. ‘Helen’ in this book is a writer, who lives in Melbourne, next door to her daughter, and as ‘Helen’ does this or that you want to point at the page and say: It’s you! There’s no fiction. I see you, Helen Garner! That’s a special kind of pleasure, but there’s also the harder pleasure of working to stop doing this. You can’t just see a fiction author, easy as that. We too often think that writing is – is all of – the person who made it, but so much here has been carefully chosen, and so much carefully left out. Part of the fascination of fiction, especially a fiction like this, is that it can say both here I am, and no I’m not.
If you’ve read Monkey Grip or The First Stone, or Joe Cinque’s Consolation, you’ll know some of the Helen in The Spare Room. She’s good company, good in a book. She’s clever and fierce and she laughs; she’s anxious and busy; she does her jobs; she rides her bike, she cooks and cleans and writes; she slogs on. Her feelings push up very fast and strong, and she’s often shocked to find that what she wants is violence: to hit and smash to pieces. She makes lots of mistakes; that keeps her in pain; but it also keeps her where she can see – where she’s painfully interested in – the mistakes of others. She’ll tell you things more cautious, nicer writers wouldn’t say. She’ll tell you her dear dying friend isn’t doing such a good job of dying. She’ll tell you that, a lot of the time, she’s thinks her dear dying friend is an idiot.
Nicola comes from Old Money, but she’s always tried ‘alternatives’ – seeds and beads and vipassana. Now this is leading her into the world of small rooms where terminally ill people sit for a PowerPoint presentation on ‘High Dosage’ Vitamin C cures and the benefits of an Ozone Sauna. The Spare Room is not just an attack on this kind of belief: one of the kindest people in the book is a boy who gives Nicola some electro-magnetic ‘healing’ patches. This novel helps you imagine how much you could want a dying person to believe they’re not dying – and hate how stupid they have to be to keep believing. Nicola thinks Professor Theodore can ‘scoop’ or ‘sweat’ cancer out of her body. Her bright smiling lies make Helen very angry and sad and tired, but Helen also knows – she does remember – that Nicola is the only one this cancer is going to kill. The dying should face the truth. Shouldn’t they? Should they?
The Spare Room does what the best fiction does: it makes you stop arguing, in that flat easy way, about what people should do. It reminds us we might not know what anyone should do, until we have to watch them doing it.