I love Helen Garner. She’s probably my new favourite author, which is a pretty funny feeling considering most of my ‘favourite’ authors are male, American and dead. Yet Helen Garner and I are practically best friends. And by that I mean, I’ve met her in person and she asked if I was ‘a writer’ (so chuffed). Yes, I have mentioned this meeting in one of my blog posts before, but let’s be honest, she’s the most famous person I’ve met and I’m going to wax lyrically about it. Oh the glamorous people you get to meet when you work in a hospital!
I’ve read both fiction and non-fiction by Helen Garner, and generally I’ve found her non-fiction outstanding, but failed to resonate with her fiction. The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation were beautifully written, incredibly thought-provoking and narrated in a voice that just seems so, ‘Helen’ (we’re on first name basis after all, Helen and I).
As a result, it took me longer to pick up her latest novel, The Spare Room, than it really ought to. Thankfully, I did. Though it is a fictitious story, there are so many elements that scream ‘Helen Garner’. Not only is the protagonist named Helen, who lives next door to her daughter in Melbourne, but the moral dilemma of the story is exactly the type of topic that she’d choose for non-fiction; terribly difficult, something that all of us can probably relate to and most definitely in the ‘grey’ area of what is right and wrong. Plus, throughout The Spare Room is that wonderful ‘Helen’ voice that no only questions the actions of those around her, but also questions herself and what type of person, and friend, she is.
The Spare Room follows Helen over a three-week period when her terminally ill friend Nicola comes to stay. Nicola, who is bright, beautiful and daring, is dying of bowel cancer. However, whether through denial, grief or the defiance in her personality, Nicola attends an ‘alternative’ medical clinic that promises her they can make her well again. As Nicola continues to refuse the outcome of her illness, Helen is forced to bear the emotional responsibility of the situation. Not only is Helen left feeling anger and resentment towards the alternative therapy, but also to Nicola, and to herself.
The main issue that Helen deals with in The Spare Room is how to force someone to accept that they’re dying. Is it better to allow them to live in denial, and to be abused by shady medical clinics, or is it Helen’s role as a friend to make Nicola face her reality? It is definitely one of those issues that is never clearly right or wrong. Though I have never had to deal with a friend becoming terminally ill, the thought of alternative therapy fills me with rage. The idea that a company or a person could openly lie to a person who is desperate, simply in order to get their money, seems beyond abhorrent. So I was able to completely emphasise with Helen’s character, particularly when she loses control to the doctor in charge.
However, it becomes murkier when Helen readily admits that she feels anger towards Nicola herself. Not because she is unwell, or that she keeps Helen awake every night, or even that she refuses to take heavy-duty painkillers – but that she is unwilling to take responsibility for her terminal illness. Not just physically, in regards to treatment, but also emotionally. So should Helen, as her friend, willing put up with this because Nicola is ill? Once again, there is no right or wrong.
Lastly, Nicola as a character herself, shows us how a person can easily get towards the end of their life and feel as though they haven’t accomplished everything they needed, or wanted, to. That they feel alone, or wasteful, or not a good person. Nicola is neither married nor has any children, so it isn’t surprising that she isn’t ready to face her reality.
What I love best about Helen Garner’s books is the strength and conviction that she has as a narrator. Though she doesn’t take sides she provides such insight into these people’s lives and issues that as the reader who you can’t help but sympathise with her. And what’s more is that, even as the ‘hero’ of the book, she still shows all of her flaws to her readers. She is unusual in that she isn’t a protagonist that is known for her beauty, charm or courageousness, but rather she is just like you or I. She struggles with the same problems and issues that each of us do, and even when she wants to be the best friend she can be, she too can fail. Not only is that refreshing to read for a change in a novel, but it also adds another depth of realism to her story.
I absolutely loved The Spare Room. I loved the cover of the book, I loved that Helen used her own name (to reflect what feelings she had felt during a similar episode in her life), I loved that she spoke with honesty and integrity, and perhaps even that the novel didn’t have a generic ‘happily ever after’ ending. Helen Garner is most definitely one of the best Australian writers of our generation, and if there’s one book you pick up this year, seriously, make it this one. You won’t regret it.
Have you read The Spare Room or anything by Helen Garner? Are you a fan of Australian fiction? Let me know!