As promised to myself, this year I’m making my way through the works of Australian novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist Helen Garner. And wouldn’t you know it, The Spare Room happened to turn up at a ‘swap rather than shop ‘ event with some friends (the clothes swaps having happily extended to books and household items, etc.)
This is a short-ish novel that didn’t take long to read but stayed with me for a while after. Over the course of three weeks Helen (yes the fictional character is named after the author and I’d really like to know how many aspects of the character mirrored the real Helen) hosts her friend Nicola in her spare room. Nicola’s not just your average guest though – she is suffering through the final stages of bowel cancer and is desperately seeking relief in the form of alternative therapies that Helen can clearly see are bogus.
But what do you do when someone is dying and clinging onto hope? To what extent do you try to get them to see the truth, when you’re already questioning exactly where you sit in their ‘friend hierarchy’? And what do you say when you do finally ‘get your own way’ but in the end it just feels like a sad and hollow victory?
Helen proves herself to be a dedicated friend, driving Nicola across town to her appointments, getting up multiple times every night to change and wash drenched bedsheets, and keeping her own dear granddaughter from visiting lest she bring her ‘cold’ germs into Nicola’s immuno-compromised vicinity.
As I said, this novel was quite brief but felt like it was also just the right length. It was a great introduction to Garner’s works and I’m looking forward to more.