The characters and events of The Spare Room by Australian author Helen Garner seemed so real to me that I could hardly believe this story was a novel.
I suspect this comes down to the skill of the writer. Everything I’ve read by Helen Garner has a truth about it. When she writes non-fiction her stories are straight and include the unflattering details as well as the bits that make her look good, which of course make me as a reader trust her. The voice of the narrator in The Spare Room is also named Helen, which makes this story seem even more as if the author was telling me about something that really happened.
The story began with Helen (the character) preparing her spare room for a visit from her friend Nicola, who was coming to stay with Helen in Melbourne for three weeks while undergoing a treatment for bowel cancer. When Helen collected Nicola from the airport she was horrified to realise that Nicola was much sicker than she had let on, and that the treatment she had signed up for was very likely a scam and would cost Nicola thousands of dollars while pumping her up with false hope, as well as having a detrimental effect on her already precarious health.
Helen found looking after Nicola to be absolutely gruelling, not just because Nicola required around the clock nursing after her treatments, but because of all of the grunt work; ferrying Nicola to and from her treatments, constantly washing sheets, towels and clothes and nursing Nicola through sleepless nights because she wouldn’t countenance taking actual medicine to treat her pain.
The emotional strain on Helen was even worse. Nicola was completely charming but wouldn’t admit she was dying, or even that she needed nursing, and made light of the demands she was putting on Helen and the other people who had been looking after her. Nicola’s refusal to acknowledge her situation or her needs filled Helen with rage.
The story as I’ve described it sounds bleak, but it’s not. The characters’ interactions and behaviours were often funny, such as when Helen told her little grand-daughter to go home as she didn’t want little Bessie to hear her being extremely rude to someone.
I think a novel succeeds when I feel the main character’s emotions as they do and in this case, I veered from hope to shock to rage to sorrow to joy to irritation and more along with Helen. Helen Garner also succeeded with Nicola, although she was dying, I wanted to be her as despite being infuriating, she was also charming, independent, beautiful, bohemian and loved by her friends and family.
To be able to call either of the main characters in The Spare Room your friend would be a wonderful thing.