In the Spare Room, Helen Garner takes on death and wins. Nicola is a cancer patient who is staying in the spare room of her Melbourne based friend, Helen, for three weeks whilst she receives treatment. Helen narrates the novel, and using the same name as the author, one wonders whether there mightn't be some autobiography thrown in - or perhaps this is a double bluff.
It quickly appears that Nicola is not resigned to her fate, and intends to battle the cancer by any means at her disposal. She is willing to take on any treatment, no matter how painful, no matter how questionable, no matter what the cost to herself or those around her - so long as it gives her hope. Whilst she appears to make light of her own predicament, underneath the stoicism she is a deeply selfish woman who just assumes that her friends and family will drop everything to support her. The strain on Helen is immense, with constant taxiing, laundry, cooking, fussing. And Nicola gives little impression of even understanding the impact she has on those around her. At one point, she chastises Helen - with an ironical eyebrow - for not writing a theatrical review (Helen is a journalist) because people would say that Nicola was preventing Helen from working.
This raises real issues around death and palliative care. Nicola refuses palliative care because she refuses to accept a terminal diagnosis. That's her right - even if it might seem misguided. Nicola has a right to clutch at straws - even when everyone else can see the futility of it. But how far does Nicola have a right to impose on others in her pursuit of cure? At what point can her friends and family, who do love her, say enough's enough?
The portrayal of the two central characters is exquisite. Helen's mixed bag of emotions: grief, frustration, guilt, anger, kindness, patience all bounce off one another. It is a feat to have created such a maelstrom in so few words. It would have been so easy to drop into a sarcastic or unreliable narrator, but Garner takes on the bigger challenge of creating a complex but straight narrator. There is no hint that her actions are anything but well meant and sincere. Meanwhile, Nicola's attention seeking, selfish behaviour becomes ever more frustrating just through constantly adding to the pile. It's not that Nicola does anything worse, just that the impact of her behaviour mounts up for both Helen and the reader. Of course, Nicola does really suffer, and has every right to complain, but she does appear to milk the situation. The writing was on the wall, perhaps, early on when Nicola banished Bessie, the small child living next door, because Bessie had a cold and Nicola's immune system was weakened. As though it would matter if Nicola dies of a cold when she was already dying of cancer.
Helen Garner also makes the reader ask real questions about attitude to dying. Most of us will have a conversation with a doctor one day when the doctor will tell us that we'll die soon. Few people imagine what that must feel like and how we might react. Most of us looking with dispassion would hope we ask to be made as comfortable as possible in our last days, weeks, months or however long. Most of us will hope we don't make fighting death a full time obsession, but accept it with grace and dignity. Yet in The Spare Room, dying is the elephant in the room that nobody dares mention. All around Nicola, the characters act out roles to suit Nicola's wish of how the world might be - and seethe ad gnash teeth in private. That is probably a very real, true portrayal of many people's experiences of the end of life. Hopefully, a novel like this will help more people talk about the elephant.
This is a terrific novel - small but perfectly formed - and it fully deserves to be Booker shortlisted - perhaps to win. What a shame the judges didn't even place it on the longlist.