For some reason I had in my head that Helen Garner would be a prim and proper writer (whatever that means). Maybe because of her age? Maybe her name? All the flower pots on the covers of her books? It just goes to show that you can’t judge a writer by the impression you have of them. Because, although The Spare Room is about a couple of older ladies and one of them is dying, the women are feisty and take up a good amount of space. And, although not a lot of background information is laid out about the characters right away, they quickly become full-blown people in your mind – ones with rich and complicated pasts. Their big personalities are all you need for this story, and how they mesh and collide and repel and rub up against each other until they just can’t anymore.
Bill at The Australian Legend read and reviewed Monkey Grip, Garner’s first novel, and in his review I learned that she is known for her autofiction. Everything about The Spare Room screams real life to me (including the fact that the protagonist’s name is Helen). Bill also mentions Garner’s “deep connection to co-operative living, to co-operation between women, to caring for others,” all themes that show up in The Spare Room.
Helen is determined to take care of her friend after learning about her stage 4 cancer. But Nicola has other things in mind – getting better! She signs up for–and shells out a lot of money for–an alternative medical clinic that administers ozone treatments and intravenous vitamin C that leave Nicola weak and in a lot of pain. She believes this is the toxins leaving her body. The longer this goes on and Nicola continues her charade of “all is well… I’m getting better… let’s pretend I’m not sick and dying,” the more frustrated Helen becomes. Nicola’s denial is actually making Helen’s efforts much more exhausting and doing a bang-up job of stoking her anger. Eventually, the situation comes to a head.
“She’s cast us as the carriers of all the bad stuff–and somehow we’ve let her. She sails about with that ghastly smile on her face, telling everyone she’s going to be better by the middle of next week, and meanwhile we’re trawling along the bottom picking up all the anguish and rage that she’s thrown overboard.”
I love the realness of this story with its anger and messiness and love and friendship. How much can you give to someone else at the expense of yourself?
I’d also like to take this chance to say Hello! to my other Australian blogging friends who are taking part in Bill’s event (and who I don’t visit as often as I would like): Brona at This Reading Life, Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog, Kim at Reading Matters, and Susan at Whispering Gums.
Do you have a favourite Australian author or book? I’d love to hear about it!