The Spare Room
Henry Holt: 192 pp., $22
When a friend shares that she has late-stage cancer, compassion is easy to come by. We feel the shock of the diagnosis. We grieve for what may be ahead. We jump into action, volunteering meals, rides, companionship, information. We know that open-hearted giving is as important to survival as high-tech treatment, and we are honored to help.
But what if our dying friend drives us crazy? What if she is a high-strung, bossy, delusional, self-theatricalizing pain-in-the-rear? What if she invades our life with unremitting and outrageous demands? What happens to compassion then?
That is the premise of Helen Garner's daring and dazzling novel "The Spare Room," the story of two women pushed to the edge of lifelong friendship when one of them -- Nicola -- undergoes unorthodox treatments for Stage 4 cancer while staying with the book's narrator, also named Helen.
Winner of Australia's Victorian Premier's Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction and the Queensland Premier's Literary Award for Fiction, Garner is perhaps most easily introduced to new American readers as the Joan Didion of Australia -- a person who writes with a diamond drill, depicting human relationships with such brutal clarity they seem to be rendered for the first time.
Like Didion, she is an uncompromising stylist of the minimalist school, a master of ultra-sharp naturalism. Garner ventured into the world of heroin addicts in the novel "Monkey Grip," focused on a sexual harassment case in the nonfiction "The First Stone" and turned a journalist's eye toward murder in "Joe Cinque's Consolation," a searing first-person investigation into the manslaughter death of a young Canberra engineer. She was certain she had settled into reportorial writing until a beloved friend died of cancer, at which point she found herself compelled to return to fiction after 15 years.
With raw honesty few authors would dare, the narrator in "The Spare Room" is named Helen because the real Helen has said she was so deeply shaken by the anger she felt at her friend's death that she needed to own up to her feelings -- the valiant and the ugly. But if she meant the name as a self-reproach, the effect is the opposite. The grimness of the subject is so overwhelmed by the pluck of the narrator you could almost call this a very dark comedy.
The death preps
When Nicola arrives from Sydney to stay with Helen for three weeks of mysterious treatments at the Theodore Clinic in Melbourne, Helen dives into preparations meant to forestall not only the anxiety of taking on the daunting personality of her old friend, but also the terror of inviting death into her home:
"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."
Aspiring novelists would do well to study this paragraph. Here, on Page 2, we have been given everything we need to make this relationship come alive. This is an author with deep knowledge of her characters -- instant reassurance that we have entered a world we can trust. And a trustworthy narrator is of particular importance in "The Spare Room," since Helen's clear-sightedness and Nicola's reckless denial of her situation form the crux of their conflict.
The treatments at Theodore Clinic turn out to be humongous IV doses of vitamin C, which make Nicola only sicker, until she is insensible with back pain and unable to eat. Nights become sleep-deprived torture for Helen -- changing urine-soaked sheets, bringing hot water bottles and duvets, desperate to provide palliative care when Nicola insists on nothing stronger than aspirin.
Helen has put everything in her life aside in order to be fully attendant to her friend, who refuses to accept what she offers, defending herself with patrician stoicism that makes Helen furious. As a result, Helen stuffs it: "I drove, I bought, I paid."
A tough place
Significantly, the wedge between them is a man, known as Professor Theodore. " 'He's the big cheese,' Nicola said grandly. 'The whole thing's inspired by his theories.' " In a brilliant plot turn, Professor Theodore leaves for China the very day he has made an appointment with the newly arrived Nicola, returning at the end of the book just in time to prescribe coffee enemas. His absence creates the opportunity for a slew of incompetent weirdos at the clinic to test Helen's resolve.
Without flinching, but with great empathy, Garner puts her narrator in an anguished position: She can't take hope away from the patient, nor can she bear to watch her suffer.
The port city of Melbourne provides a gritty, vibrant backdrop for the other well-drawn characters who offset Helen's vigil. There is Bessie, the engaging granddaughter who lives next door with Helen's daughter, and Leo, the calm and rational psychiatrist we all wish we had for a friend, to whom she turns for pasta and advice.
The scenes evoking the soul of the relationship between Helen and Nicola -- the outrageous laughter you can share only with a dear friend -- are as light and appealing as a summer's day. In these scant 192 pages there is incredible range.
Like the self-titled narrator, you can trust Helen Garner. As deeply as she'll take you into the darkest territory of the heart, she will not abandon you.
As a writer, she has forced herself to strip away all sentiment and tackle this story through to the very end -- the end of what we can know, which can be, surprisingly, a satisfying place.
Smith is the author of "Judas Horse."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times