The Spare Room – Helen Garner (2008)

The Spare Room book cover

This is a short spare novel (novella?) about some big questions in life regarding friendship. Where does your responsibility end with a dying friend who comes to stay with you? Where are your boundaries? And where are hers?

Garner has written a small novel (lengthwise – 175 pp) that packs a powerful punch. Helen has Nicola, a friend, to stay at her home whilst Nicola undergoes questionable cancer treatments that are expensive, hard to take, and unproven. During Nicola’s three-week stay, Helen sees her life turned upside down by her visitor and experiences a wide range of unexpected emotions from rage to tenderness as she cares for Nicola and her body ravaged by the “treatment” that she is receiving.

Reading this review so far, I think, makes this book sound horrendously sad – there are several such moments, but there are also moments of laughter, relief and a little girl who lives next door and comes to show Helen her newest flamenco dancing. This is more a story about friendship than anything. When a terminally ill and fairly distant friend comes to stay with you as you happen to live in the same town as the clinic, how much truth is ok? How do you tell your terminally ill friend that she is being irritating and difficult? How do you support her when she is in denial of how ineffective her treatments are? Is it your job to be brutally honest or do you let her keep that glimmer of hope even if you disagree with her choices?

This was a quick and intense read which has left me thinking and pondering what I would have done in a similar situation. The writing is succinct and without extra flourishes – perhaps reflecting how life’s priorities become pared down to the basics when you’re on the edge of dying. An unexpected ending finishes off this read. Good one.

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