The Spare Room by Helen Garner
The Spare Room is a novel about caring for a friend with cancer by Australian writer Helen Garner. She is an Australian novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist who was born in Geelong, Australia on 7, November 1942. She is a graduate of the University of Melbourne. Garner’s first novel, Monkey Grip, was published in 1977, and immediately established her as an original voice on the Australian literary scene. The Spare Room is a story set over the course of three weeks while the narrator, Helen, cares for a friend dying of bowel cancer. The cancer sufferer can be very stubborn and selfish. It is a form of self-preservation. This story reflects this. The book was published in 2008.
I am a cancer survivor. I have written about my journey in https://survivingbreastcancernow.com/. When I chose this book from the local library, I did not realise the topic it covered. I was not sure that I would be able to cope with it. However, The Spare Room is a magical gem of a book. It is gripping, moving, and unexpectedly funny. The book packs a huge punch, charting a friendship as it is tested by the threat of death.
The book made me think about how those who love had suffered when they were caring for me and watching my treatment and recovery. How much of they gave up to help me in my time of need. Likewise in this book, Helen has little idea what lies ahead and the strength she will need to muster when she offers her spare room to an old friend, Nicola. Helen arrives in plenty of time to pick Nicola up from the airport, but she wasn’t expecting to see her friend look so sick, so sick that she could hardly walk. Of course Nicola insists it was just the flight that has taken its toll on her and that she’ll be fine once she has a rest. Nicola has arrived in the city for cancer treatment. She is skeptical of the medical establishment, and placing all her faith in an alternative health center. Nicola will be attending The Theodore Institute where she she will undergo extensive alternative treatment for her cancer. She is convinced that after three weeks of this alternative treatment she will be cured of her cancer. The alternative treatment is high doses of vitamin C. Nicola is determined to find her own way to deal with her illness, regardless of the advice Helen offers.
Nicola explains to Helen how the treatment works and as far as Helen is concerned it is a load of rubbish. Helen knows that there is no miracle cure for the final stages of terminal cancer, but Nicola refuses to be convinced. However, after only a few treatments of vitamin C, Nicola starts to feel very sick and is in a lot of pain. In the weeks that follow, Nicola’s battle for survival will turn not only her own life upside down but also those of everyone around her.
She wakes during the night to sopping wet bedding from sweating and chronic pain. Each night Helen helps her change the bedding and tries to comfort her, but her patience are wearing thin knowing this treatment will not work. As Nicola continues with the treatment, Helen becomes increasingly angry, frustrated and exhausted. She cannot seem to make Nicola see that this treatment is not only expensive, but is a waste of time. She only wants what is best for her friend:that is to make sure the time she has left is as pain free as possible.
Helen Garner’s book was a relatively quick read, but it definitely was not an easy read at times. A heartbreaking and powerful read about care, friendship and dying. The Spare Room is a book well worth reading.