Garner, Helen (2008), The Spare Room, Henry Holt
There are few topics that are as difficult to write about as death. At the same time, there are equally few topics that get as much exposure as this one either. It seems a go-to topic for writers intent on writing solemn/serious literature, ranging from mediocre writers and their books (cf. Paul Harding’s Tinkers), to excellent writers and their books (cf. Graham Swift’s Last Orders) and excellent writers and their mediocre books (cf. John Banville’s The Sea). I have to admit that as a reader, I tend to be a tad suspicious of such books (an offshoot of these are novels about the Shoah (see my review of HHhH)). I have, however, recently read two novels in the genre that I found very impressive. Like the best books focusing on the death of individuals, they deliver a take on the ars moriendi that is interesting and original. Interesting enough that I will devote two reviews to them, one for each. These two novels were published within just a few years of each other, in different corners of the world but they are both attempts to examine this vast, difficult topic within less than two hundred pages, and both use simple language, with short sentences and small observations in order to do it. In both books it is cancer that ends a life and throws the lives of those around the terminally ill protagonist into turmoil. I’ll be basically writing a double review in two parts, posted separately. Part one is on The Spare Room and part two is on Grace (you’ll find it here)
Helen Garner’s The Spare Room is told from the perspective of Helen, whose friend Nicola, weakened by cancer, comes to visit in order to undergo an ‘alternative’ treatment. The novel focuses on the weeks that Nicola stays with her friend and shows how what is effectively palliative care can take its toll on those looking after terminally ill people, and how anger, frustration and exhaustion can completely take over a household. Its language is extremely simple, but not flat, filled with quotidian observations, moving chronologically from day to day with careful, bitter languor. We don’t get a look inside the mind of the dying person: she is instead reflected by Helen’s reaction to her. Linn Ullmann’s Grace, by comparison, sweeps through the life of a man called Johan, who is terminally ill with cancer. We are mostly sharing his point of view, including his reflections of what appears to be a failed life. The book jumps back and forth, and it is told in similarly simple, but highly evocative language. Ullmann doesn’t much bother with day to day events as she chronicles both a bitter life and a bitter death. Garner’s novel has the weight and care of a novel fraught with experience and thoughtfulness, while Ullmann’s appears to be more reliant on melancholic set pieces. At the same time, Ullmann’s novel reaches further than Garner’s. I can recommend both books, with reservations.
Helen Garner is an Australian writer born in 1942, and The Spare Room is her first novel in 16 years. This novel feels lived-in; the protagonist, Helen, feels fully fleshed out and the book is extraordinarily well grounded as far as its setting is concerned. It’s set in Melbourne and while the writer doesn’t offer many details about the city, all the references feel on cue and natural. There’s a natural tendency to consider this book somehow autobiographical, not just because the writer and the protagonist share the same first name and live in the same city. It’s the writing itself that creates this feeling. Helen Garner does not attempt to go for a poetic, elegiac style. Instead her writing is simple, never attempting to buoy simple situations by presenting them on an elevated linguistic plate. We find things the way they are. When people “slouch in front of the TV”, then that is what we are told. But the simplicity is never flat. I have been increasingly frustrated by contemporary novelists who assume that simplicity in style does not require the same degree of deliberation and artfulness as would a more flowery kind of writing. Books like Blake Butler’s otherwise very intriguing There Is No Year seem to be very disinterested in aesthetics. Garner’s book does not dispense with musicality, and it does not completely ignore the option of elegiac phrasing where appropriate. Rather, what Garner’s appears to be doing is reaching for the word or phrase that is genuinely most appropriate to her given the situation and syntactic context, instead of reaching into the bag of phrases, as a lesser writer would. Given all this, I am not surprised that this is a writer that won’t be rushed from book to book.
And it’s not just the prose itself that is believable. Helen, the protagonist, and Nicola, her cancer-stricken friend, are also instantly plausible. To be fair, if they were not, the book would instantly crash and burn. Unlike Grace, which is couched in a sea of metaphors, small stories, big scenes etc., the simplicity of The Spare Room means that unless the main character is believable, the distress and struggle, the chaos and conflicts, the overall damage that death did to Helen’s life simply from passing through it for a short while, it would just seem like agitated but irrelevant noise. Garner does not let ‘big themes’ do the work. Her book works hard to convince us that these lives matter, that it matters what happens to them. And it feels like naming the protagonist ‘Helen’ is part of the author’s attempt to drive home the plausibility of the situation and the significance of the two lives that are entangled for a short time in Melbourne. The fact that all this works so well is especially impressive given that in many other way, the book is deliberately staging a scene, structured around the titular “spare room”. It would be a misreading to dismiss the book as simple, whether we read it as realistic or staged. Cindi Katz and Janice Monk have written very eloquently about the role of spaces and geography in the life course of women, and how fear-based discourse – and an isolation of homes – often limits the mobility of women in geographic spaces. The way Nicola is compelled to travel in order to defeat fear (and this also involves leaving the spare room Helen prepares for her), and the fact that her temporary home is inverted as an unsafe place, a place where she cannot possibly find healing, all this presents exciting angles for reading this book, which cannot be easily exhausted. Other complexities are introduced by various objects and people, who often feel symbolic, arranged on a stage.
Garner offers us, at the outset, an epigraph, a quote from fellow Australian novelist Elizabeth Jolley: “It is a privilege to prepare the place where someone else will sleep.” This could mean several things: from actual sleep to preparing a place for someone’s final rest. As we see quickly, what’s meant is something in between. Death just passes through, but the spare room becomes part of the process of dying. The aforementioned art of dying is examined by showing the reader someone who struggles with it, and in truly medieval fashion, they are struggling on a carefully circumscribed stage. This is the room, which is being prepared as we enter the novel, because the book starts before Helen’s friend Nicola arrives. Nicola has stage IV bowel cancer and travels to Melbourne in order to undertake a sketchy treatment at the Theodore clinic. Even though Nicola has not yet arrived at Helen’s home, she is already there in spirit. We are witness to Helen’s preparations for Nicola and as the reader will find out, preparing a place means more than just providing some clean sheets. Now, on some level we all understand that: most of us have at some point experienced the incredible kindness of having a space prepared for us in someone else’s house – and by extension, someone else’s life. But Helen’s situation is different.
She is careful about adapting the room for Nicola in two different ways. One of them is meant to reflect Nicola’s deteriorating physical state. Helen worries about the floor accommodating Nicola’s frailty, and the colors and shapes in the room making Nicola feel welcome. The other concern is expressed with much more levity, as Helen moves the bed “to align the sleeper with the planet’s positive energy flow, or something?” These two preparations are not equal and are not equally expressed. Helen is a rational, careful, caring adult. She has prepared a space in her mind, as well as in her house, but unlike the spare room, the space in her mind is an assortment of rational medical knowledge about Nicola’s cancer. This is where the novel’s main conflict arises. Nicola has no intention of getting medical treatment. The clinic she is visiting will provide a variety of dubious treatments, including stays in a sauna, cupping, and above all, Vitamin C. As it turns out, these treatments are not just dubious, but they also massively weaken Nicola, who, in addition to all this, steadfastly refuses pain medication and as a result, becomes more and more frail and irritable. While Helen knows to expect some of this, the brute force of Nicola’s irritation and anger is tough to deal with. What’s more, Helen is perfectly aware that what she is doing is basically humoring a dying person. Helen knows full well that what she is doing is giving palliative care. She is “watching” Nicola, but at the same time, she is her caretaker. The room she prepared for her friend, in her house, in her head and in her life has been stocked with provisions, stocked with help. When Dr. Theodore, the unpleasant and clearly untrustworthy head of the Theodore clinic, imposes too much of a strain on her friend, Helen intervenes.
All of this happens in the span of a slim book and Garner’s writing is perfect for this: as I mentioned earlier, it’s simple, but at the same time it’s precise: she enumerates the elements of her world, as she prepared it for Nicola, and as it evolves during her stay. Events are also stated with care, as are Helen’s thoughts. No matter how much chaos arises, no matter how bad the emotional turmoil is, the writing never slips. This makes for devastating reading, because, robbed of poeticisms, what we are left with is the stark reality of how death enters the life of these two women. The struggle within Nicola, a struggle to believe in the possibility of being healed, is repeated in Nicola and Helen’s interactions. Nicola is learning to die. The phases of her moods seem to roughly reflect the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. Helen’s love and patience allows Nicola to find a way to move on, find a way to accept death, or at least not fight it with the help of dangerous quacks. Helen Garner’s novel refuses typical narratives of cancer, and more importantly: it doesn’t offer a moral lecture on how to be a good cancer patient. We don’t get to see Nicola’s thoughts. We infer the challenges, the irritation, the conflicts from the effect she has on Helen and the things she says to her. But the truth about the pain and the approaching death, these things Garner withholds from us. Preparing a space for one’s own death is different from preparing a space wherein someone else’s death unfolds. Medieval ars moriendi tracts didn’t just instruct people on how to die well, they also instructed the family and friends of dying people on how to treat them, and in a way, this is an explication of such an idea: how to prepare a space for someone else to spend some time dying, not only as a spare room in a house, but also as a mental space in one’s head and life, to accommodate the rage, fear and sadness of a dying person.
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