We’ve all had house guests who stay too long. But what happens when a house guest who overstays her welcome is dying? What if you invited her there hoping to prove in yourself some measure of humanity, humility, maybe even heroism, by taking good care of her? What if you found her irritating? Grating? Self-absorbed? What if she didn’t seem to even notice what a great caretaker you were? What if she didn’t seem to appreciate your prowess as a host? What if she outright ignored the disease that was killing her, just refused to even mention it, denying you any hope of closure? Worst of all would be the shame that compounded all of these feelings about the dying house guest, the sense that you are wrong, inhuman, cowardly, right? Helen Garner’s novella The Spare Room (new in trade paperback from Picador) tackles these questions and the emotional turmoil behind them in measured, spare prose making a compelling and rewarding read.
Little irks me more in journalism than a book review (or any media review, really) that seeks to intertwine the personal dramas of the reviewer. I am about to do just that right now, gentle reader, so you are forewarned. Stop reading now if you wish and know that Biblioklept recommends The Spare Room. It’s a marvelous piece of writing, one that gives proof to the cliché “brutally honest.”
Reading The Spare Room I could not help but identify with its narrator, an Australian woman in her 60s named Helen who takes care of her free-wheeling, slightly daffy, cancer-infested friend Nicola. I am not an Australian woman in my 60s, but, like Helen, I know what it is like to live with and care for a person whom you love who also happens to be dying. From the time I was 12 years old, my maternal grandmother Mama Dot lived with my family. The doctors, prognosticating wise men all, gave Mama Dot just a year or two to live and my folks wanted her to spend that time with us. She was very sick, and, as if to prove the verity of certain stereotypes about Southern women, she was also very stubborn–mulishly so (the woman could hold a grudge). She went on to live another 10 years with my parents, during which time both my brother and myself of course left the house (but always came back to visit). I loved her very, very much and, perhaps as a result of that love, fought with her constantly and fiercely about any little thing. Unlike the narrator Helen, who bottles up her irritation with Nicola (particularly her fury at her friend’s pursuit of quackish cures), I found it easier to confront my grandmother about her faults in illness–her lapses of memory and judgment, her lack of cooperation, her unbearable slowness. I could even be mean. But like Helen, I always felt bad about it too. What makes The Spare Room such an affecting, gripping read is Garner’s honesty, her ability to capture the negative, selfish feelings that we all must feel when comforting the sick.
Narratives about the dying often disengage the emotional turmoil of the caretaker by applying a veneer of sentimentality, morality, or even whimsy. Garner handles her subject matter with a realism that denies sentimentality and faces the ugliness of death head on. Her narrator is compassionate toward her friend but it’s always clear that the book is not about Nicola–it’s about how Helen reacts to Nicola. It’s about what it means to be selfish at the very moment you are trying to be selfless. It’s about how hard it is to get past your flaws as a human being. Take the book’s humor, for instance: The Spare Room is frequently hilarious, yet the humor never seeks transcendence or escape. When Helen seems to mutter to her audience, “God bless morphine” at the beginning of a chapter, she isn’t drolly avoiding her friend’s pain–she’s thankful that the drug has given both of them a night’s sleep. Similarly, her observation that the “station was a seven-minute walk from my house, twenty if you had cancer,” reveals that Helen’s selfishness is wrapped in minute details, details that compound in the narrative and build tension toward its awful final sentence (a final sentence that I won’t spoil by revealing here, dear reader).
The Spare Room is a tightly-compressed novella that one might read in an afternoon or two, yet the book will undoubtedly stay with most readers for a long time to come. We might not all be like Helen (and, thankfully, not all of our patients are as trying as Nicola) but there is certainly bound to be some measure of her in even the best of us. Garner has captured here some of that rage against the dying of the light that Dylan Thomas encouraged of us, and she’s revealed that that rage, falling impotent against illimitable death, might end up aimed at those we love dearest–as well as ourselves. Highly recommended.