Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
Earlier this year two friends from my book group, whose opinions about books I value, told me how much they enjoy the writing of Helen Garner. My curiosity was piqued and when at the library on Wednesday I saw for the first time one of her books, The Spare Room, I grabbed the chance to discover Garner’s writing. The Spare Room won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Queensland Premier’s Award for Fiction and the Barbara Jefferis Award, and has been translated into many languages.
The Spare Room is a claustrophobic novel set in protagonist (Helen’s) house in Melbourne. In the slim novel, Garner tackles the heartbreaking topic of caring for a dying friend who comes to stay for three excruciatingly intense weeks, a time marked by huge compassion, grief, humour, a lot of pain and great waves of anger. Helen’s friend of 15 years named Nicola flies from Sydney to Melbourne to receive highly dubious ‘alternative’ therapy at great cost, not only financial but physical. Nicola receives ozone saunas, cupping, and intravenous vitamin C injections at the Theodore Institute, a clinic offering alternative treatments to cancer patients. The clinic is run by a veterinary surgeon, Professor Theodore.
Nicola stays in Helen’s spare room and Helen cares for Nicola as she suffers from the rigors, Helen changes Nicola’s bedding several times each night due to copious sweating and cringes at the intense physical pain that Nicola suffers because she isn’t willing to take powerful painkillers. Over the course of the three weeks, the two women battle with each other. Helen is deeply sceptical about Professor Theodore, who is chronically absent from his clinic. But Nicola makes fun of Helen’s scepticism and is confident the devastation done to her body by the vitamin C injections is “only the vitamin C savaging the tumours and driving them out”. Helen is drained:
huge wave of fatigue rinsed me from head to foot … At the same time a chain of metallic thoughts went clanking through my mind, like the first dropping of an anchor. Death will not be denied. To try is grandiose. It drives madness into the soul. It leaches out virtue. It injects poison into friendship, and makes a mockery of love.
Helen finally could not bear the face that Nicola shows the world and she screams at her to acknowledge that she is dying. Nicola responds saying that she has to put on a brave face:
But see, all my life I’ve never wanted to bore people with the way I feel. No one wants to know about if I’m sad or frightened. I’ve learnt to shut up and present an optimistic face.
In a way this is a cautionary tale about staying single or becoming estranged from family, because if you don’t live with a loved one, who is going to wash your bottom for you when you no longer can? Nicola’s grand old manners and posh, old-fashioned lexicon like ‘crash hot, my divine niece, some mad little hotel in South Yarra’ reminded me of my grandmother, as did the attempts at putting a brave face on her suffering because she was afraid that otherwise she would bore people. My grandmother has in various ways alienated most people who would otherwise be close to her and I thought of her suffering alone as I read about Nicola.
Helen is not Nicola’s oldest or probably closest friend but Nicola has chosen to stay with Helen. As the two sit and reminisce and laugh together Helen thinks:
Oh, I loved her for the way she made me laugh. She was the least self-important person I knew, the kindest, the least bitchy.
Helen has a lot in common with the author and in an interview Garner said about her own experiences with caring for a dying friend (that inspired her to write the book) and her dying sister and parents:
It’s a huge experience to care for someone who’s dying and … I needed to write the book partly to contain it in some way so it wouldn’t leave me in this chaos of sorrow
The story is an example of the increasingly popular Boomer literature genre, written by and about ageing Baby Boomers and more specifically Matron Literature although I find that title offensive and I suspect Garner would too. A central theme of the novel are the difficulties faced by carers, with the relentless and unrewarding work of caring for someone else without respite or hope that the situation will change. The carers who I know work tirelessly to provide for the needs of their loved ones, balancing work and the desires of elderly parents to continue to live at home. The carers in my circle who I feel most strongly for are those caring for children with intellectual disabilities and it’s devastating to hear those carers worrying about what will happen to their children when they are no longer to provide the care themselves. According to Carers Australia, there are 2.7 million unpaid carers in Australia, of which
Hilary Mantel stated:
It’s a book which asks unavoidable and painful questions, not least about the nature of friendship, with a clarity that offers no room for evasion. It refuses to offer easy answers or false comfort. A book for grown-up people, in other words. And the Lord knows, there are a lot of the other sort about.