Fiction – hardcover; Canongate; 180 pages; 2008.
Even before I started reading Helen Garner‘s The Spare Room I knew I was going to like it. It was the design of the book that convinced me, because surely a publisher wouldn’t go to all this trouble to make it look so beautiful if the content was rubbish? The cover image grabbed me initially when I ordered it online, but once I had it in my possession I loved the whole package: the gorgeous cover image (tulips are my favourite flowers); the dust jacket with its luxurious matt sheen; the pretty endpapers (tulip petals interspersed with green leaves); and a green bound bookmark.
But putting the sheer physical beauty of the book aside, The Spare Room is also rather special because it is Garner’s first novel in 16 years. Her last novel, Cosmo Comolino, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 1992, but she then took a different writing path, concentrating on short stories and journalism. The first (and only) Garner I have read was The First Stone, a non-fiction account of a sexual harassment scandal at a residential college at the University of Melbourne, which caused much controversy upon publication in 1995. I ate that book up in the course of a day and closed the last page feeling dazed, slightly dirty and not quite sure whether the author was a genius or a traitor. Having now read The Spare Room my opinion lies toward the former rather than the latter.
That other great Australian author Peter Carey endorses Garner’s talent by describing her new book as a “perfect novel”. Of course this is an oft overused trite phrase but, in this specific case, it’s a wholly appropriate one. In fact, I’d go so far as to describe it as a sublime novel, and one that works its way into your subconscious so that you find yourself thinking about it when you are doing other things.
Reviewing the book is difficult though, because the synopsis sounds terribly dull and depressing. A 60-something woman offers her spare room to a cancer-stricken friend of the same age and then finds their relationship tested to the core, doesn’t really grab you by the throat, does it? And yet, in Garner’s careful hands this story becomes a thoroughly engrossing one. The carefully measured prose, stripped of unnecessary clutter, serves to remove the claustrophobia of such a dark storyline, imbuing it with a light-hearted touch. Indeed, there were many times when I laughed out loud, not the least of when Nicola, the cancer sufferer, asks Helen, the friend caring for her, to buy some organic coffee for an enema.
When I saw her brewing the organic coffee in the kitchen after dinner, I said tentatively, ‘Do you need a hand to set it up? I can…
She shook her head, too busy to listen.
‘I wonder, though,’ I said, as she forged off to the bathroom with the equipment. ‘Is it a good idea to have a coffee enema at bedtime? You don’t think the caffeine might keep you awake?’
‘Why on earth would it do that, darling?’ she said breezily. ‘I won’t be drinking it — I’ll only be putting it up my bum.’
Supposedly based on Garner’s own experience of caring for a dying friend, The Spare Room has a genuine ring of authenticity about it. You can understand Helen’s anger, her fear, her inability to look after her dying friend, even if it is for just three weeks, because you know to be in a similar situation you’d probably feel the same way. Why should a friend do what a family member should be doing? And what happens if this friend dies in your spare room?
This is a novel about death and friendship, about drawing lines and crossing them, about facing up to hard truths and shying away from things we’d rather not confront. But it also embraces other uncomfortable issues, including whether it is permissible to believe in alternative therapies if Western medicine does not have a solution, but all the while it never preaches, never comes across as heavy or patronising.
The Spare Room is one of those books that throws you in at the deep end and, to completely mix my metaphors, you either run with it or you don’t. I’m pleased to say I ran with it… and only wished it was longer than its brief 180 pages.