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The Spare Room

Text Publishing (2008)
RRP $29.95
The Spare Room is quite unforgettable.

Described as Helen Garner’s ‘first work of fiction in 15 years’, The Spare Room is part memoir, part psychological thriller.
It describes three weeks in Helen’s life in suburban Melbourne, during which she takes in her Sydney friend Nicola who is dying from cancer.

Nicola seems to be a recognisable figure of someone from a privileged background who is charmed by alternative healers, new age philosophies and the magnetic field of her own theatrical personality.

Of course solitude is her greatest enemy – even greater than her disease – as Nicola tries on a Northern Beaches-meets-Nimbin mask of almost aggressive optimism.

This performance of denial and distraction pushes all of Helen’s buttons, as she tries to find hard evidence in the chaos of (very) alternative health interventions, physical decay, and the sleepless routine of laundry, cooking, negotiating and care-giving.

Helen needs to know that there is meaning in this suffering and in the unexpected devotion she finds within herself to care for such an infuriating friend.

 The struggle for meaning climaxes in an angry – and surprisingly funny – confrontation with Nicola and those professions which are prone to exploit a patient’s despair and confusion about terminal illness.

At one point Helen describes anger as her ‘default position’ and the glance of an intervening doctor as being ‘fiercely intelligent’.

This is an amazing book in which the ‘spare room’ comes to represent the unconscious part of ourselves which we dare to open to others in times of crisis.

Ms Garner has invited us into her interesting world and left us a wonderful gift to take with us when we leave.

Though difficult and painful The Spare Room is satisfying and beautiful.

One of the best works of fiction or reflection I’ve read this year.

 Reviewed by Mark Young, a long time reviewer for Journey