Monday, April 27, 2009

The Spare Room by Helen Garner

25. The Spare Room
by Helen Garner
fiction, 2008
hardcover, 195 pages
finished, 4/27/09

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.


  1. You've done a beautiful job with this book report Nan and have explained this book to me better than anyone else so far. I'm going to keep this one in my mind.

  2. Thank you, Tara. What a nice thing to say. It means so much to me.

  3. Some really interesting observations you have about the book. I haven't read it but I share the territory of cancer with Nicola. It brought back many images and thoughts I had going thru diagnosis and treatment - and some of the people I met who didn't have the caregivers that Helen wondered about. Or the strain on those that were witness to the disease.

    The outside world does fall away, Nan. The disease doesn't - and you mustn't let it - take over your life. But it all becomes a work-around - eating, sleeping, getting dressed in the morning, carrying on your life in as normal a way as possible.

    This would be a tough book for me to read since I'm still assimilating the experience. I'm a survivor - but at once it also brands you as someone who will always have cancer.

    Thanks, Nan, for the review... :)

    - J.

  4. Thank you, Jeff. Your note means a lot to me.

  5. As a cancer survivor, it took a while for me to read this book, and in the end I picked it up because I liked the cover! I am very glad I read it, I have been on both sides of the fence as it were, patient and caregiver, and I think this well written book makes some very important points. I particularly welcomed her telling of the awful 'alternative' treatment. I am very keen on some of these but there are still too many charlatains out there preying on the helpless.
    Lovely review, as ever Nan.

  6. I heard about this book when my sister was diagnosed with cancer. Recently I got a copy through LibraryThing, but I've not read it yet. After my sister's death it still seems just too hard to even open it. She wanted to try any new treatment and like Nicola she refused to admit how serious her illness was- she just wouldn't speak about it. It made it all so hard - and she was very angry too.

    Thank you for writing about it - maybe I'll try reading it soon. I even waited a few days before reading your post after I saw you'd written it.

  7. Gosh, Margaret, I know. It isn't an easy book by any means, and I don't see why you should have to read it. You lived it, and that's enough.

  8. I'm pretty sure that I have mentioned Sarah Challis's Blackthorn Winter to you. She is one of my fav contemporary writers and I have enjoyed all her books.
    I find reading fiction on the subject of cancer - which I was diagnosed as having in 2004 (had the treatment, now hopefully - fingers crossed time - in remission) a no go area. I don't wish to read about it, I want to put it all behind me.
    Margaret P

  9. Yes, Margaret, I believe you did mention Sarah C. And I wouldn't want to read about it either. I'd be just like you and wanting to move forward. Thank God you are doing so well.

  10. From reading the comments above, one realizes how difficult cancer is. It's probably one of the most terrifying diagnoses you can hear. And that fear goes straight to your core.

    I don't talk much about the disease either although I find myself considering it from time to time. As odd as it may sound, I don't find it as terrifying as I used to. Oh, I respect it, I watch for it, and realize that it might yet be in my future again. It's not something that you can run away from - and certainly not something you want to run towards. Anger certainly isn't unusual either.

    I wouldn't read the book for catharsis. But I do admit that sometimes I read these types of stories to re-experience the emotion, to integrate, to understand it. Cancer is incredibly complex. The mistake is just to approach it clinically.

    I do hope that all the people above who have endured the disease, their families, friends, co-workers - never have to go thru it again....

  11. I'm late to comment, but wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your beautiful book report, Nan. This doesn't sound like your type of book, but you made it sound so loving and honest. And, oh, what a beautiful cover! Not sure I'd want to read this, but then again, I've read about other illnesses, such as in Still Alice. Maybe someday.

  12. Jeff, you know, I've been thinking, and I almost wonder if it isn't a book for the caregiver more than the person with cancer. The author had a lot of trouble with alternative therapy people. I echo your hope.

    Les, you are so right. This is not my kind of book, at all. :<)

  13. Thanks for sharing this book report. I don't think it is for me right now, but I'll tuck away the suggestion for another year or maybe several years down the road. All I seem to be reading now are happy ending stories (i.e. women's fiction or romance-type things) or lovely mysteries that have complete justice in the end (a mystery lover's type of happy ending, eh?). I think I'll get back to more "serious" reading at some point perhaps, or perhaps not. Reading for me seems to be an escape in so many ways and, therefore, needs to not be about traumatic issues. Again, thanks for sharing. Lovely cover on the book.

  14. Kay, I am really surprised I read it since this isn't my ususal fare, as Les noted. I'm with you on the happy endings. I think you would love the mystery I'm now reading from the 1940s - Craig Rice's Home Sweet Homicide. Good mystery, good family, and the children are the main sleuths! One of the great Rue Morgue editions.


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