Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Spare Room.
This small novel is unsparing in its honesty, crackling with the feelings engendered by helplessness in the face of death. In Australia, Helen is in a whirl of preparation. Her dear friend, Nicola, will arrive soon for a three-week treatment program at the Theodore Institute. After a cancer diagnosis, Nicola has embraced alternative medicine, her spirited response to a death sentence she is determined to beat.
Now in their sixties, the two women have enjoyed a close friendship, a bond that Helen naively believes will sustain them through Nicola’s visit and cycle of treatments. Helen has prepared carefully, setting aside commitments, psychologically and physically ready to be of assistance to Nicola.
Taking her enthusiastic young granddaughter to the airport to meet Nicola, Helen is shocked when she sees Nicola’s deteriorated condition. Even the child is frightened by the frail woman who staggers towards them, a rictus of a smile plastered on her face, her frail body purged of energy.
Nicola’s immune system is virtually nonexistent, so Helen must put aside the bright child who is so much a part of her daily life. What ensues is an act of generosity on Helen’s part, a three-week endurance of Nicola’s night sweats, agonizing pain and determination to ignore the cancer that assails her. Intending only kindness, Helen is soon worn down by the bland immutability of the Theodore Institute, the bizarre treatments (including the infusion of massive doses of Vitamin C), and the suffering Nicola endures during long, pain-wracked nights.
What Helen has not anticipated is the limitations of her endurance in caring for Nicola, the rage that fills her in the face of Nicola’s intractable spirit, a refusal to face the ultimate truth of her plight. Nicola is relentless in her cheerfulness in spite of debilitating pain, an unshakable belief that ignores Helen’s exhaustion and fraying nerves. Most damaging is Helen’s overwhelming rage, a frustration with the false promises of alternative medicine: “Anger is the most exhausting of emotions.”
This is a harrowing journey of friendship tested by a final reality: that death will not be denied. For those familiar with such scenarios, memories are evoked; for those unfamiliar, this is a brilliant depiction of human behavior driven by pain, fear, anxiety, and the limits of physical endurance.
Helen is rigorously honest with herself, tender with Nicola yet filled with a helpless anger in the face of Nicola’s denial: “I was sick with shame, raging at myself… raging at death… for being so slow with her and so cruel.” Certainly this novel is more about Helen’s passage through the ordeal than Nicola’s. By necessity, Nicola clings to the false promise of a cure despite her body’s extreme reactions to treatment.
It is the caretaker who ultimately must come to terms with her own grief and real limitations in the face of this awful challenge. Yet Garner’s book is filled with transcendent moments, small painful epiphanies and the elastic boundaries of one friend’s deep affection for another. In the end, Helen accepts reality gracefully, if with a deep sadness: “It was the end of my watch and I handed her over.”