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 ...
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...
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