There are a few topics that I’m emphatically not interested in reading about. One of those is cancer. My problem is not the grimness of the topic—if you read this blog with any regularity at all, you’ll know I have no problem with grimness. No, my problem is the sentimentality of so many cancer narratives. You know the story. In the midst of suffering, the noble cancer patient learns what’s important in life and so do all the people around said patient. (Full disclosure: I’ve not read any cancer books that I can recall, but that’s the strong impression I’ve gotten from movie adaptations and back-cover blurbs.)
All of this is to say that when The Spare Room by Australian author Helen Garner was being praised all over the blogosphere two years ago, I tuned out a lot of the praise. But it was so persistent and came from so many bloggers whose taste I trust that I couldn’t tune it out completely. So when LibraryThing offered a copy of the new paperback edition through its Early Reviewers program, I decided put my name in for it. It turns out that their reviewer-selection algorithm thought this book was a good fit, and now that I’ve read it, so do I.
The Spare Room is a short novel, only 175 pages long, detailing three weeks in the life of a cancer patient, Nicola, and her friend Helen, who has agreed to put her up in while she’s away from her Sydney home to seek an alternative cancer treatment in Melbourne. Helen, the first-person narrator, is practical and realistic about Nicola’s situation. She believes Nicola is going to die, and that the best thing she can do is accept it and prepare herself. Nicola, on the other hand, is idealistic and optimistic; she’s sure that with the right therapy—in this case, injections of vitamin C, hours in an ozone sauna, and organic coffee enemas—she’ll be completely cured.
The two women’s difference in outlook generates most of the tension in the novel, more even than Nicola’s approaching death. When Helen must change Nicola’s sheets several times during the night because the alternative treatments are causing pain and night sweats and because Nicola is suspicious of strong pain-killers, this tension is always in the background.
But the novel is about more than alternative medicine and how we respond to incipient death. There are questions of how much we can ask of friends—as opposed to family. Who can we ask to do the hard things, and how much is too much to ask? And then there are questions of how far we’re willing to let friends go down wrong-headed paths before we speak up, and what do we do when they don’t listen? These are weighty questions, and Garner does not provide easy answers. She just shows how these two women navigated this difficult passage, sometimes clumsily and sometimes with great grace. There are moments that are tremendously moving, but they are moving in their subtlety, not in overwhelming sentimentality.
The story, incidentally, is loosely based on Garner’s own experience caring for a friend with cancer. According to this interview at dovegreyreader scribbles, she started writing it as a memoir but realized that making it a novel would give her more freedom, although the emotional and psychological truth of the experience does, I think, shine through.
What’s interesting is that even though Helen in the novel is a fictionalized version of the author, Garner doesn’t give her fictionalized counterpart a break or craft the story to make her into a sainted caregiver. She’s angry and frustrated with Nicola’s choices, sometimes rightfully so, but there’s a sense that she’s mostly frustrated that Nicola isn’t acting according to her own rules, which includes being realistic and properly grateful. Nicola’s flippant attitude minimizes not only her own desperate situation, but also the value of Helen’s sacrifices for her friend.
I’m sure that the grimness of this book will be too much for some. Garner writes of Nicola’s treatments and her symptoms in more detail than many readers would want, but I never found it gratuitous or voyeuristic; the details are important to showing how unpleasant, and intimate, this situation is for both women. And the book isn’t unrelentingly grim. There are moments of levity, and times when I wanted to stand up and cheer. It’s what, in my mind, a cancer narrative ought to be. It’s raw, honest, beautifully written, and never sentimental.