Monday, April 27, 2009
The Spare Room by Helen Garner
25. The Spare Room
by Helen Garner
hardcover, 195 pages
I've had this book for a little while. It is one my friend Carole in England kindly sent to me. I wasn't so sure about it because of the subject matter, but I held onto it thinking I might pick it up someday. On Saturday morning when I did a blog search to see if anyone else had read Blackthorn Winter, I found a new-to-me blogger who had written a review of the Challis book, and The Spare Room. I thought this might be a sign that the time had come to read it, and so I began. I brushed away all thoughts of spring activities, settled on the shady porch swing, and got completely caught up in the story. It starts so quietly. A woman is preparing her guest room, her spare room for a friend. It seems a pleasant endeavor, but right off the bat there is an ominous note. She chooses a pink sheet because 'pink is flattering even to skin that has turned yellowish.' Uh, oh this isn't good. She wonders about putting up a mirror. 'Would she want to look at herself?' And then when the mirror falls off the wall, as I feared it would since it was just held with adhesive, a friend happens to call. 'A mirror broke? In her room? Don't. Tell. Nicola.' So there in the first five pages, the reader understands.
The Spare Room is about a woman with cancer and how her disease affects everyone around her. Nicola is part of a generation who didn't always marry and have children. Many are free spirits who have traveled and worked at several different jobs. When illness comes, who takes care of these people? There aren't any adult children or aging husbands to give the love and support needed.
Nicola comes to Helen for a three-week stay while she does some alternative treatments in Melbourne. The strain is almost unbearable for Hel, not just because of the hard, hard work of changing and washing sheets (from nightly sweats and/or loss of bladder control), hauling the heavy mattress to where it can air out, driving Nicola wherever she needs to go. No, the worst and unexpected part is dealing with Nicola's refusal to admit two things: how serious her condition is, and that she may be paying a lot of money to a charlatan. Her treatments leave her feeling terrible, and the people don't give her real care. Those at the alternative clinic leave her on her own to deal with the side effects.
The book's title is reflected in the 'spare' prose. There isn't a wasted word. Though it is set in Australia, I didn't have much sense of the outer landscape. The Spare Room could have taken place anywhere, because those of us who have been through this sort of thing know that the outside world falls away. The weather may be sunny or rainy and it doesn't register unless it connects somehow to our inner experience. Also, the reader is not 'spared' the gruesome details of a ravaged body and a hurting spirit. We are there in Helen's house for those long three weeks.
In the midst of the upsetting times, there are moments that recollect the old friendship between these two women.
Before dinner Nicola made a couple of magisterial gin and tonics and we drank them in front of the TV, to armour ourselves against the news of the world. Later we watched the DVD she had chosen, Million Dollar Baby. We loved the girl boxer leaping out of her corner with her fists up: let me at you! I privately thought the ending was sentimental; Nicola cried; and then we both praised Hilary Swank to the skies. This was the way we had always been together. It was easy.
The Spare Room has important things to say about the patient and the caregiver. They are things not often talked about. Mostly we hear about the unselfishness and kindness and generosity of caregivers. Yet caregivers may not have a chance to express their very particular concerns, angers, and fears. Here their emotions are given voice. It is an excellent book, beautifully written. Though it was sad and hard to read sometimes, I stayed with these women. It felt like it was the very least I could do.
The reviewer I noted above wondered how true the book may be, and I did as well, especially with the main character sharing a name with the author. I did a search and found an interview in which Helen Garner says she did indeed lose a close friend.
In lieu of offering a general book giveaway, if you or someone you love is going through (or has gone through) a similar experience either as the patient or the caregiver, and you would like to read the book, please go to my profile page and email me. If I get more than one note, I'll do a drawing.