With its limited settings, The Spare Room reads more like a play than a novel.
unfolds in the offices of an alternative health clinic and in the home of a
woman determined to serve her terminally ill friend. Tensions arise because
Nicola pretends to believe in unconventional treatments (including large doses
of Vitamin C, coffee enemas and ozone saunas) while Helen struggles over whether
or not she should warn her guest that the Theodore Institute preys on the hopes
of desperate patients. The demands of caretaking culminate in an intervention
that forces the patient to stop "smiling" in spite of her pain, and the hostess
to stop feeling responsible for someone else's choices.
Cancer is a disheartening subject, but the author doesn't allow her namesake narrator to indulge in pity or in lengthy flashbacks of Nicola's healthier days. When Helen does remember the past, Nicola is presented as a strong, independent, but not especially heroic woman - an appropriate, measured characterization considering that The Spare Room isn't about bravely "coming to terms" with a frightening diagnosis, nor is it about triumph over hardship. There's no need to set Nicola up for a tragic fall. The story begins long after the characters have already learned death will be the outcome, freeing the author to explore facets of illness beyond the course of the illness itself.
The Spare Room has been praised for exploring the relationship between the women with an honest depth. In an interview for The Sydney Morning Herald, the author has also stated that she wanted to show " there can often be a very dark, semi-conscious struggle" when it comes to caring for the dying.
We soon learn that Nicola is not as naive as she seems. Her actions are more about distracting herself from the truth that her cancer is incurable than they are about seeking eleventh-hour solutions. Helen's attempt to become the perfect attendant is not entirely altruistic. Her dedication could be interpreted as the need to control the minor details that can be controlled when everything else seems beyond reckoning, or even less innocently, as the need to be regarded by others as competent, to be thanked, to be the one remembered as having stood by Nicola - desires tinged with selflessness and selfishness. The situation is further complicated by each woman's efforts to maintain the appearance of normalcy instead of giving in to full-blown anger.
Portraying these nuanced emotions in themselves isn't an unusual achievement; one would expect an accomplished novelist to create dynamic characters worthy of the reader's time. What makes The Spare Room particularly notable is the way in which these emotions unfold - the compressed timeline lends a subtle urgency to the women's daily routines, and the unadorned writing style leaves room to imagine all that has been left unsaid. There's a profound sense that the "negative space" surrounding the subject of the portrait has been considered at length. The result is an elegantly concise exploration of human frailties.
When death finally arrives, the moment is narrated through Helen's reflections, using a series of repetitions, e.g.: "I didn't know then ", "I didn't know yet " "I could not imagine", "Nor could I foresee", "I couldn't foresee", "I had no idea that " This final chapter was unsatisfactory. Compared to the careful pacing in the scenes throughout the rest of the novel, what should have been a moment of well-earned grief turned into a quickly resolved summary.
Regardless of the ending, the dynamics of giving and taking would interest anyone who has ever experienced a similar situation. As the caregiver, one may question where to draw the line between allowing the patient as much dignity as possible and stepping in when he or she no longer seems to be rational. As the patient, one may worry about burdening others. Readers that have never played either role aren't likely to be drawn to the more visceral realities of tending to the dying, but the enduring theme of friendship has every potential to override any initial hesitations about this novel.
In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Helen Garner explains that Nicola is based on her friend Jenya Osborne, who died in March 2006, "an artistic, funny, generous woman who came from an old country family, wrote and edited, embraced Buddhism and natural therapies, and lived in bohemian style at a beautiful house on Sydney's Pittwater." The two were friends for about 15 years. But Garner says the impetus to write The Spare Room was deeper than just telling Osborne's story.
Garner sent a manuscript to Osborne's family, firmly committing to change anything they didn't like, or even to dump the book entirely - but they loved it. Osborne's sister, Ingrid Davis, wrote to her saying, "It seems to be an honour that you chose to write about Jenya ... you have put it down so squarely and beautifully, that would be what Jenya wanted. ... Too many people dodge around the issue of dying. ... What you have said needs to be said, it makes our lives right to know what really happens."
19 BookBrowse members have reviewed The Spare Room rating it an average 4.0 out of 5.0.
This review was originally published in February 2009, and has been updated for the February 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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