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The Spare Room: A Novel

The Spare Room: A Novel

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The Spare Room: A Novel

ratings:
4/5 (74 ratings)
Length:
145 pages
2 hours
Released:
Feb 3, 2009
ISBN:
9781429992510
Format:
Book

Description

A powerful, witty, and taut novel about a complex friendship between two women—one dying, the other called to care for her—from an internationally acclaimed and award-winning author

How much of ourselves must we give up to help a friend in need? Helen has little idea what lies ahead—and what strength she must muster—when she offers her spare room to an old friend, Nicola, who has arrived in the city for cancer treatment. Skeptical of the medical establishment, and placing all her faith in an alternative health center, Nicola is determined to find her own way to deal with her illness, regardless of the advice Helen offers.

In the weeks that follow, Nicola's battle for survival will turn not only her own life upside down but also those of everyone around her. The Spare Room is a magical gem of a book—gripping, moving, and unexpectedly funny—that packs a huge punch, charting a friendship as it is tested by the threat of death.

Released:
Feb 3, 2009
ISBN:
9781429992510
Format:
Book

About the author

Helen Garner was born in Geelong, Australia, in 1942. Her award-winning books, including The Spare Room, Monkey Grip, The First Stone, and Joe Cinque’s Consolation, include novels, stories, screenplays, and works of nonfiction. She lives in Australia.


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The Spare Room - Helen Garner

Room

1

First, in my spare room, I swiveled the bed onto a north-south axis. Isn’t that supposed to align the sleeper with the planet’s positive energy flow, or something? She would think so. I made it up nicely with a fresh fitted sheet, the pale pink one, since she had a famous feel for color, and pink is flattering even to skin that has turned yellowish.

Would she like a flat pillow or a bulky one? Was she allergic to feathers or even, as a vegetarian, opposed to their use? I would offer choice. I rounded up all the extra pillows in the house, slid each one into a crisply ironed slip, and plumped them in a row across the head of the bed.

I pulled up the wooden venetian and threw open the window. Air drifted in, smelling leafy, though you couldn’t see a leaf unless you forced open the wire screen and leaned right out. She had been staying for months with her niece Iris, on the eighth floor of an art deco apartment block in Elizabeth Bay whose windows, I imagined, pointed due north over a canopy of massive Sydney figs, toward the blue field of the harbor.

The immediate view from my spare room, until I could get some geraniums happening in a window box, was of the old gray paling fence that separated my place from my daughter, Eva’s. The sash window faced east, though, and the light bouncing off the weatherboard side of Eva’s house kept the room bright till well into the afternoon. Also, it was late October, which in Melbourne is supposed to be spring.

I was worrying about her feet. The floor of her room was bare timber, except for a worn kilim full of rips. What if she snagged one of her long, elegant toes in it? What if she fell? Slippers were among the things she didn’t bother with, along with suitcases, bras, deodorants, irons. I rolled up the dangerous kilim and threw it into the back shed. Then I drove over to a shop opposite Piedimonte’s supermarket, where my friend Peggy, who knows about these things, said they sold tribal rugs. Straightaway I spotted a pretty one: blossoms of watery green and salmon twining on a mushroom ground. The bloke told me it was Iranian, vegetable dyed. I chose it because it was faded. She would hate me to buy anything specially; to make a fuss.

Would she want to look at herself? It was months since I had last laid eyes on her: all I knew was from our e-mails. Every time the news sounded bad under her chirpy chatter, I would suggest flying up to Sydney. But she put me off. She was going out to dinner and couldn’t change the date, or there wouldn’t be a bed for me, or she didn’t want me to waste my money. She might take it the wrong way if her room lacked a mirror. Behind the bookshelf in my workroom I found one I’d bought in an Asian import shop at Barkly Square and never used: a tall, narrow, unframed rectangle of glass, its back still equipped top and bottom with strips of double-sided adhesive tape. I selected a discreet spot for it, just inside the door of her room, and pressed it firmly against the plaster.

On the bedside table I fanned out some chord charts to have a crack at on our ukuleles—Pretty Baby, Don’t Fence Me In, King of the Road. I arranged the reading lamp on a gracious angle, and placed beside it a mug full of nameless greenery that I’d found near the back shed. Then I went along the corridor to my room at the front of the house and lay on the bed with my boots on. It was four o’clock in the afternoon.

What woke me, ten minutes later, was a horrible two-stage smash, so sickening, so total, that I thought someone had thrown a brick through the side window. I rushed out all trembly and ran along the hall. Nothing moved. The house was quiet. I must have dreamt it. But the edge of the old hall runner, halfway to the kitchen, was weirdly sparkling. I stepped over it and into the spare room. The mirror no longer existed. The wall was bare, and the Iranian rug was thick with the glitter of broken glass.

I swept with the dustpan and brush, I beat with the millet broom, I hoovered in cunning angled strokes. The fragments of mirror were mean-shaped and stubborn, some so minuscule that they were only chips of light. They hid against the rug’s scalp, in the roots of its fur. I got down on my knees and picked them out with my fingernails. When the daylight faded and I had to stop, my sister Connie rang me.

A mirror broke? In her room?

I was silent.

Then she said, in a low, urgent voice, Don’t. Tell. Nicola.

Three weeks she’s staying? said my friend Leo, the psychiatrist. That Saturday evening I sat in the spartan kitchen of his South Yarra place and watched him cook. He poured the pasta into a strainer and flipped it up and down. Why so long?

She’s booked in to do a course of alternative treatment down here. Some outfit in the city. They’ve fast-tracked her. She’s supposed to present herself there first thing Monday morning.

What sort of treatment?

I was loath to ask. She talks about peroxide drips, awful stuff. She’s already been getting big doses of vitamin C in Sydney. Eighty thousand units, she said. Intravenous. With something called glutathione. Whatever that is.

He stood very still with the dripping colander in his hand. He seemed to be controlling himself: I had never before noticed the veins in his temples, under the curly white hair. It’s bullshit, Helen.

We started to eat. Leo let a shrink’s silence fall as he forked in food. His terrier, black and white, squatted by his chair and gazed up at him with helpless love.

It is bullshit, is it? I said. That’s my instinct. Get this. When the bowel tumor showed up on the scan, she asked the oncologist to hold off treatment for a while. So she could take a lot of aloe vera. He said, ‘Nicola. If aloe vera could shrink tumors, every oncologist in the world would be prescribing it.’ But she believes in things. She’s got one of those magnetic mats on the floor behind her couch. She says, ‘Lie on the mat, Hel. It’ll heal your osteoporosis.’

Leo didn’t laugh. He looked at me with his triangular brown eyes and said, And do you lie on it?

Sure. It’s restful. She rents it from a shop.

So chemo didn’t work.

She walked around carrying a bag of it plugged into the back of her hand. She’s had surgery. She had radiation. They’ve told her they can’t do any more for her. It’s in her bones, and her liver. They said to go home. She spent five days at a Petrea King workshop. I’d heard good things about that, but she said it wasn’t her style. Then she went to someone she called a healer. He said she had to have her molars out—that the cancer was caused by heavy metals leaking out of her fillings.

Leo put his head in his hands. I kept eating.

Why is she coming to you?

She says I saved her life. She was about to send a lot of money to a biochemist up in the Hunter Valley.

A biochemist?

A kinesiologist told her this bloke’s had a lot of success with cancer. So she phoned him up. He said he wouldn’t need to see her. Just have a look at her blood picture. She was supposed to send him four grand and he’d post her the exact right herbs to target the cancers. ‘Essence of cabbage juice’ was mentioned.

I let out a high-pitched giggle. Leo looked at me steadily, without expression.

And he told her she shouldn’t worry if she heard unfavorable things about him, because he had enemies. People who were out to get him. I was trying to be tactful, so I asked her, ‘How did you feel, when he told you that?’ She said, ‘I took it as a guarantee of integrity.’

My cheeks were hot. I knew I must be gabbling.

I was scared she’d accuse me of crushing her last hope. So I went behind her back and called a journalist I know. He ran a check. Turns out the so-called biochemist’s a well-known con man. He makes the most outlandish claims. Before he went into alternative health he’d spent years in jail for armed robbery. I rang her just in time. She had the checkbook in her hand.

It took me a moment to calm down. Leo waited. His kitchen was bare, and peaceful. I wondered if any of his patients had ever been invited into it. Outside the sliding glass doors an old concrete laundry trough sat on the brick paving, sprouting basil. The rest of the tiny yard was taken up by his car.

You work with cancer patients, I said. Does this sound bad?

He shrugged. Pretty bad. Stage four.

How many stages are there?

Four.

The bowl was empty. I put down my fork. What am I supposed to do?

He put his hand on the dog’s head and drew back its ears so that its eyes turned to high slits. "Maybe that’s why she’s coming to stay. Maybe she wants you to be the

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What people think about The Spare Room

4.1
74 ratings / 59 Reviews
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Reader reviews

  • (2/5)
    Het boek wordt nogal geprezen, maar het viel mij een beetje tegen. De stijl spreekt me niet aan.
  • (4/5)
    Short, sparse, and rooted in personal experience, this novel packs a serious punch while confronting one of society's biggest taboos - slow, but sure, death.

    The narrator, who could, perhaps, be mistaken for Garner herself, takes in an old friend who is visiting for a radical treatment of her terminal cancer. The book uses this fulcrum to examine different attitudes towards death, caring, friendship, and nature - never shying away from the shit, literal and metaphorical, involved in slowly dying.

    Sad, and uplifting without ever drifting into an easy sentimentality.

  • (4/5)
    The whole thing was shrink wrapped in human revelations. ...then it was over...like our lives
  • (4/5)
    A friend, dying of cancer, comes to stay. That's no easy topic to write about, and when the friend is simply a pushover for any 'alternative' treatments the scene is set for a struggle.Cry, laugh - yes, laugh - and enjoy this sensitively handled look at death, friends dying, cancer and hope.
  • (5/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    I dashed throught this succinct, moving, bitter-sweet story of sharing a ahouse with a dying friend. I cherished the insights and gasped at some of the piercing truths. Garner is as ever wonderful.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (4/5)

    2 people found this helpful

    Helen Garner's award winning novel The Spare Room is an unflinching and at times brutally honest and unsparing exploration of a loving friendship between two women of late middle age. Nicola has journeyed from Sydney to Melbourne to stay with Helen while receiving a 3-week course of treatment for advanced cancer. Helen, anticipating Nicola's visit with a mix of anxiety and dread, has prepared the spare room in her house for her dear friend. Nicola arrives a wreck, and immediately Helen fears Nicola is at death's door. But the sick woman rallies and regains energy and her good spirits in what becomes--during the next several weeks--an agonizing pattern of euphoric highs, miserable lows and sleepless nights that grinds Helen down until she can take no more. Nicola's alternative treatments, dispensed at an independent clinic in the city, are expensive, controversial and based on a kind of science that, as Helen digs deeper into it, begins to seem not just dubious but downright fraudulent. As Helen watches her friend's suffering intensify she grows impatient, first with the treatments and then the clinic, and finally with Nicola herself, whose relentless optimism and cheerful stoicism start grating on her nerves. The rage that bubbles to the surface of Helen's normally staid and pragmatic demeanor shocks her with its raw intensity. She doesn’t want to argue and has no wish to betray her friend by cruelly destroying her faint hopes of recovery, but after two weeks she can no longer endure Nicola’s breezy insistence that the treatments are working and that she’s going to get better. Garner’s narrative is engrossing but sometimes painful to read. In this book we confront one of the most deeply ingrained of human fears. What are we to do when someone we love is dying, but won’t face up to it? Under such dire circumstances, with the inevitable outcome looming, how important is the truth? In the end, Helen and Nicola work out a compromise based on their own selfish needs. Helen Garner is an unsentimental writer who cuts through the crap like few others, dissecting human motivation with surgical precision: like a scalpel, her writing is sharp and effective. The Spare Room is a potent story that acknowledges the inevitability of death, while also acknowledging that, for the person approaching the end of life, acceptance and defiance both serve a purpose.

    2 people found this helpful

  • (4/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    On finishing this novel I had to go check on a few details. Yes it's classified as fiction and yes, it mirrors events in the author's own life. This story packs quite a punch and has a very direct, very real style of delivery. Surprisingly it's not about the sick person here, the story is all about the gut wrenching, emotional roller-coaster ride that a carer goes through, when nursing a terminally ill friend. As I turned the last page, I closed the book slowly, stared out the window and thought quiet thoughts!

    1 person found this helpful

  • (5/5)
    Helen Garner shines a harsh but loving light on the struggles of one woman as she attempts to help her dying friend cope with cancer. I found this novel at once endearing and brutal. Under Garner's sharp pen every word rang true. A quick read. A gem of a book!
  • (5/5)
    I don't award 5 stars very often, but this book deserves it. It was one of those where I savoured every page yet could hardly bear to turn them, knowing it was one step closer to the end. I aspire to observe and describe people with the same skill as Garner. Will definitely be seeking out her others.
  • (3/5)
    A really interesting book. I thought at first that it was a memoir but it isn't. The characters are all really believable and the story is touching.
  • (4/5)
    A tough subject beautifully treated with strong, sensitive writing.
  • (4/5)
    An incredible book which is full of truth, love and grief. But it's never tolling and always comforting. Helen Garner is a joy to read.
  • (4/5)
    This novel by Australian author Garner, is based on her personal experience of helping a friend with cancer through the last months of her life, spent living in Garner’s titular spare room. Because it feels like non-fiction, some of the emotions seemed almost too personal for print. A book to make you think about death, friendship, and emotional honesty.
  • (4/5)
    “How competent I was! I would get a reputation for competence.”(from the blurb because I can’t say it better) Helen lovingly prepares her spare room for her friend Nicola who is coming to stay. For the next three weeks, while Nicola undergoes treatment she believes will cure her advanced cancer, Helen becomes her nurse, her servant, her guardian angel and her stony judge. The Spare Room is an unforgettable story about what happens to a friendship when the chips are down.It transpires that much of the subject matter of The Spare Room did come from Garner’s personal experience (see interview with Dovegreyreader), and given its brutal honesty, it is part novel, part confessional.While the focus of the book is very much the conflict between Helen’s pragmatic view (Nicola is dying) and Nicola’s idealistic/fantastic view (daily overdoses of Vitamin C will cure her cancer), I felt the issue of the friends’ behaviour towards one another was also a key theme: Helen is tirelessly caring but very sceptical and in one spectacular and brutal confrontation, demands that Nicola accept the inevitable and give up her belief in the expensive quackery; Nicola appears predominantly ungrateful and does not acknowledge Helen’s efforts. For such good friends (and I’m not certain that the book includes any references to the occasion of their meeting), their personalities seem oddly discordant.However, both key characters and the support cast of doctors and family (especially Nicola’s niece Iris) are well-sketched and kept simple; the sparse writing (195 pages of well-spaced large font) does not need or permit space to be squandered on fleshing out the bit parts. Helen is not flawless, she seethes with resentment which can only bubble over once she has safety in numbers on her side of the debate. She bosses Nicola around (admittedly only after Nicola has proven unreceptive to gentler treatment) in a manner not entirely becoming of a long-time friend and current nursemaid.I’ve read quite a few books this year chronicling a character’s last days (The Love Verb, Before I Die) and I was not as moved by Nicola’s plight as I was by the dying characters in these others. Perhaps because the tragedy is not Nicola’s illness but the conflict in the friendship and perspectives.I was really touched to find reference to a part of the world I know very well:“Nicola lived beyond the northern beaches of Sydney on a hillside that could be reached only by boat. For years she had chugged back and forth in a tinnie between Palm Beach jetty and the landing below her house, a ten-minute ride in fine weather… She sat at the tiller, erect and handsome as a duchess in loose garments that the wind ballooned and rippled, her silver hair streaming flat against her skull… The first time I went to stay a weekend, she dared me to climb the bush-choked escarpment that soared up behind her shack to Kuringai Chase. We clawed our way to the top, grunting and cursing, and hauled ourselves, two filthy, panting hags, out of the scrub on to a track along which at that moment came strolling a city couple in pale, freshly ironed sporting clothes, with a Shih-tzu trotting on a leash…”Garner lives in Melbourne but she has nailed life on Pittwater perfectly.A very good book, not as brilliant as I was hoping, but certainly not a waste of an afternoon.
  • (4/5)
    This is a story about our ultimate dread: death and dying. Two old friends -- smart, independent women rather set in their ways -- are reunited when one flies from her home in Sidney to Melbourne for alternative cancer treatment, staying in her friend's spare room. A reader can sense where this story is going from the opening page, and Garner writes with surgical precision about the futility of avoiding death in life: "At the time a chain of metallic thoughts went clanking through my mind, like the first dropping on 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 a friendship, and makes a mockery of love." The two friends begin their visit with a polite dance of avoidance and denial about the state of one of them, but as the story unfolds, the relentless truths cannot be denied. Helen Garner clearly has some direct experience with loss; the main character bears her name. For anyone who has had the agony (and privilege) of spending time with someone dear who is dying, this book will strike a responsive chord.
  • (4/5)
    Helen nervously prepares the spare room for her dear friend, Nicola, who has advanced stage cancer and is coming to stay while undergoing treatments at an alternative medicine clinic. While Nicola remains always positive and smiling throughout the clinic's shady operations, Helen is crazy with doubt, disbelief, and exhaustion as she tries to support the friend at whom she really wants to scream what they both should know--"You're dying." The reader quickly feels the tug between denial and truth and can appreciate the raw emotion on both sides. The ending seemed off somehow, unsatisfying, but overall a short, but worthwhile read.
  • (4/5)
    A tale of one friend caring for another friend who is dying of cancer doesn't sound like much of a page turning novel, but it is. Nicola travels from Sydney to Melbourne to stay in Helen's spare room and get treatment from a new clinic. The relationship between them leaps from close to strained and back again as they both deal with the situation. Helen thinks the treatment Nicola is receiving is pure quackery, Nicola doesn't want to face the fact that she's going to die. Helen is up all night helping Nicola out, Nicola claims she doesn't need nursing. It's a great little book with a good mix of sad and happy parts. Good exploration of friendship and caring. A couple of things that seemed off to me: I find it a bit creepy when authors use their own name for characters - I don't mind if fiction is drawn from autobiography and have no idea if that's the case here or not - I just find it a bit weird. Of all the names out there couldn't they pick another? It makes me think there is some meaning to using their own name and that I'm missing something. And I found the end of the book a bit rushed; although I could see why the author had finished it as she did I was left wanting some more. Despite that I do appreciate the brevity - it's the kind of book where you get to realise things for yourself, the author doesn't feel the need to tell you the same thing over and over again.I'd recommend it.
  • (3/5)
    The Spare Room is a short novel at 175 pages but it is a fast and gripping novel about friendship and the joys and hardships that can develop when one is dying of cancer. Helen and Nicola have been friends for about 15 years, both in their 60's and they live in different cities in Australia. Nicola has terminal cancer and sets her hopes on getting treatment at an alternative health clinic near Helen. Helen invites Nicola to stay in her spare bedroom as she undergoes the treatments. Helen is sure that she will be able to care for Nicola, she has no idea that caring for her friend will often bring out a side of herself that she never expected to see. A short, curt bitter and inpatient woman that is full of anger. She thought that she would don her caretaker role and not have a problem, she was in for a surprise. She becomes fiercely protective of Nicola as she believes that Nicola is being taken advantage of and given false hope at the alternative clinic. She learns to understand that when one is dying that a person often either gives in or fights and will try anything to keep them alive and that others can easily take advantage of this desperation. I found the story in The Spare Room to be a bit grim at first as it is difficult to read about someone in the process of dying. This book is so much more than that, it is the kind of book that evokes emotions that are unpleasant in the sense that I could identify with the feelings of Helen and her frustration and anger with Nicola's behaviors and with herself and her reactions. It also evokes a sense of emotion that it's not wrong to have feelings of frustration and anger but what is important is what you do with those feelings. I think that most women can identify with a caretaker role and wanting to "help" family and friends who are in a crisis health wise or other type of crisis. What Helen shows in her character is that we can often believe that we can be the Florence Nightingale and have the strength and patience to deal with most any situation. Often times, we can't and until we are in a situation of caretaking we realize the depth of what is required and the emotional toll it can take. It can bring out the best or the worst in you. I haven't been in a role of caretaking someone that was dying but of raising my son who had a myriad of health issues from birth on. He required much patience and dealing with the changes that his health issues brought on was a challenge. We sought out alternative health specialists to consult with and were willing to do so in hopes of helping our son. We had to be very level headed in weeding out the ones that could easily take advantage of those offering miracle cures or questionable treatments. I also saw a patient side of myself, but also the impatient angry side reared it's ugly head and I had to learn to manage that. I never thought that I would have had to deal with the myriad of emotions that I went through. The Spare Room also looked at the friendship relationship and how that can be challenged when dealing with a friend who is nearing the end stages of life. This is the kind of book that affected me more deeply than I expected and was one that I had to process a bit as I turned that last page. The novel is based in Australia and I appreciated the descriptions of the city and country, ways of life and how things aren't that much different than here in the states.
  • (4/5)
    This is a wonderful short read. I read it in an evening. Helen, who lives in Melbourne, prepares her spare room for a 3 week visit from her friend Nicola who is in late stage cancer and undergoing alternative therapy in a desperate attempt to save her life. The visit will test their friendship as never before and the reader is taken on a journey into the wild and heartbreaking world of the desperately ill and those who prey upon them.
  • (4/5)
    A brief, brutal, and oddly lovely meditation on what it takes to care for another person. Garner does not shy away from the monstrous selfishness of the ill or from their pain or the caretaker's internal tug-of-war between wanting to help and wanting not be destroyed by the helping.
  • (4/5)
    This book centers around a comfortable, loving friendship between two 60-year-old women. The narrator, Helen, has invited her old friend, Nicola, to inhabit her spare room while she is in Melbourne (from Sydney) for three weeks to receive treatment for cancer. In spite of her frailty and the debilitating physical effects of the treatment, Nicola puts up a brave front while Helen exerts great efforts to keep her friend clean, comfortable, well-fed and rested.It is a particularly challenging situation for both women as Nicola struggles to accept the reality of her illness, and Helen is pushed to the limits in supporting her friend. The writing is spare, and effortless, and serves as a wonderful comment on friendship. What indeed are the limits of friendship? How much love, compassion, and effort does a friendship exact? And how much anger or rage can it withstand? A lovely read.
  • (5/5)
    This was a smart, stark read. The main character, Helen, takes in her good friend Nicola in Australia as Nicola is searching for a holistic cure for her cancer which has been rendered incurable by Western doctors. Helen thinks that the treatment is bollocks by tries to be supportive. Mostly she can not deal with Nicola's refusal to admit that she is sick and dying. Helen and Nicola's family find the more Nicola denies her illness, the angrier they are at her. This was a short novel but very powerful and unsentimental.
  • (5/5)
    Nicola comes to stay with her old friend, Helen, while she undergoes a desperate alternative treatment for her cancer. Nicola is certain that, with just another mega-dose of vitamins, the cancer will be gone from her body and she'll be as good as new. Helen sees the truth - that the treatments are just a way of exploiting a dying woman, and that Nicola is in denial about her condition.If you are looking for a book that celebrates friendship at the end of life, this is not the book for you. This is a harsh look at how hard it is to die, and how hard it is to watch your friend die. It is about weakness, indignity, messes, and exhaustion. But it is also about what it means to love another person unconditionally.If you believe you can love someone through the horror of a cancer death, this short book is well worth your time. It will give you a small glimpse into what it is like to care for that person under the most horrific of circumstances.
  • (4/5)
    You should read “The Spare Room” by Helen Garner if you have a good friend, siblings, parents, or children whom you love and can’t imagine life without. This story happens to be about two female friends but it could be about any close relationship that is facing serious illness and impending death. But even that is too limiting. This is a story for everyone. It very quietly, humorously, wrenchingly, tells of love, devotion, self sacrifice and limits. Helen has opened her spare room and her heart to her good friend Nicola who is coming to stay for three weeks while undergoing an extreme alternative treatment for her aggressive cancer. All of the characters are real and speak in clear voices from Helen’s grandchild demanding adult attention to the terminally ill, Nicola, avoiding her truth. I had never read anything by Helen Garner but I will find more of her work after reading this courageous book.
  • (4/5)
    Helen prepares her spare room for her friend, Nicola. Nicola has advanced cancer and is coming to stay with Helen while she undergoes an unorthodox treatment. I can’t say enough good things about this book. The relationship between Nicola, the gadabout, and Helen, the steady and loyal friend, is fascinating. The contrast between Bess, the young granddaughter and Nicola, dying friend, is fascinating. The author allows the story to tell itself, a simple story, yet full of complexity.
  • (4/5)
    How fitting that Helen Garner chose the title, The Spare Room, for her first novel in fifteen years as it is full of spare, haunting, beautiful prose. The title also refers to the spare room in Helen’s house where her good friend, Nicola, who is suffering from terminal cancer, stays for three weeks while she obtains an alternative medical treatment. I can only assume Garner went through this herself and this is an autobiographical novel, because the story is searing and could only be told by someone with first-hand experience. Helen is a 60ish Australian woman who just so happens to be a writer.At the beginning of the story, Helen is getting ready for Nicola’s visit. She is so looking forward to reconnecting with her old friend, and being a good supporter by providing the help that’s needed at such a critical time. As the novel progresses, reality sets in. Nicola is pinning her hopes on an alternative treatment that is questionable at best and most likely bogus. As she sees her friend beaten down by massive infusions of Vitamin C, and the response of the incompetent staff at the treatment facility, Helen can barely contain herself. She begins to question how good a friend she really is, and whether or not it’s possible to deny death once it gets a foothold. As they visit with Helen’s friend Peggy, who Nicola is only remotely acquainted with, Helen comes to this frightening realization:“Peggy glanced at me. Horrified sympathy passed along her eyebeams. It weakened me. A huge wave of fatigue rinsed me from head to foot. I was afraid I would slide off the bench and measure my length among the cut roses. 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.” (Page 79)Garner has written a darkly funny and unstinting novel that addresses the reality of friendship and dying and how, though we may want to try, it’s oh so hard to reconcile both; and how, when the friend is in denial, it’s impossible to help them come to terms with the end. Eye opening and highly recommended.
  • (4/5)
    At one point while reading this book I was transported back to a conversation I had with my mother soon before she died of cancer. The emotions of that day flooded back - a testimony to the writing of Ms. Garner. Though the language is spare throughout the book, the precision and accuracy give it depth and breadth that many authors never achieve. This is a book worth reading. It sheds a simple and honest light on the turmoil and challenge experienced with a terminal illness - both for those with the illness and those concerned others that care and want to help.
  • (4/5)
    Unexpected is the main word that keeps coming to mind whenever I think about this book. The Spare Room is the story of two women who have been friends during their adult lives. One of them, Nicola, is ill, she had cancer, and she asks her friend Helen if she can stay with her for a few weeks while she undergoes therapy. I think I was expecting lots of heartfelt conversations and tears. Perhaps thoughts of end-of-life regrets and tender moments. That was not the shape this story took. These characters aren't any cookie-cutter depictions of people dealing with cancer. Cancer doesn't suddenly make everyone a saint. The story of Nicola and Helen is authentic. How difficult is it to care for someone with cancer? How does it affect the caregiver and the relationship? Recommended. This book was provided by Librarything's Early Reviewers Program
  • (4/5)
    I received this book as an early reviewer and couldn't remember what it was about. WOW! This is a gorgeous, brief book about Helen who opens her home to her friend of fifteen years, Nicola, who is dying of cancer. Nicola has come to Melbourne from her home in Sydney and is looking for a place to stay while she tries an alternative treatment. The story is simple but the impact is huge. Helen has to come to terms with losing a vibrant, close friend but more than that she has to come to terms with her own anger and frustrations in dealing with her. It is a beautiful book.
  • (3/5)
    An interesting first few chapters presented a problem many of us can identify with. An old friend (or relative) suffering from a serious illness need to stay with you while undergoing treatment. Unfortunately, the treatment Helen's friend Nicola is undergoing is a highly suspicious & unproven cancer treatment. Although she is worried, Helen goes along with the plan, she is a bit of a wimp & Nicola has a very forceful personality & is sued to having her own way. As Nicola's progress goes from bad to worse, Helen seeks advice from some mutual friends. They all agree that the treatment is worthless, the plan now is to convince Nicola. This is a dilemma Helen is barely qualified to undertake. However, the book's ending seems a bit "deus es machina" it was disappointing as I had hoped for more confrontation between Helen's friendship for Nicola & what Helen knew was destroying both body and psyche.The story takes place in Australia, which I enjoyed as I've never been there & the author points out some local sights & scenes.