Tested in the shadow of death

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ed­wina Shaw

bring­ing hu­mour to the topic so that it be­comes a black com­edy — but ul­ti­mately more than that. Gar­ner walks the tightrope of au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal fic­tion and paints her­self as a very hu­man pro­tag­o­nist in a con­tem­po­rary story of friend­ship and love.

The nar­ra­tor, He­len, goes out of her way to wel­come and nurse Ni­cola, a friend who has come to stay while un­der­go­ing ex­per­i­men­tal treat­ment for can­cer. He­len valiantly changes sheets and wipes her friend’s brow in night­long vig­ils, be­ing the ‘‘ good nurse’’ most women hope they will be in times of cri­sis.

The gri­mace that has re­placed Ni­cola’s smile as she trem­bles with rigours and mires her­self in de­nial of her im­pend­ing death makes the reader laugh at first, but later squirm, be­com­ing des­per­ate for some­one to make her see sense.

Gar­ner keeps the reader’s em­pa­thy with He­len even as, con­sumed with rage, she be­comes a harsh judge of her dy­ing friend. No mean feat, as any writer will tell you.

In 2008, when The Spare Room won the Queens­land Pre­mier’s Lit­er­ary Award for best novel, I was lucky enough to be in the au­di­ence to hear Gar­ner read aloud one of my favourite scenes.

When He­len and Ni­cola visit a friend for morn­ing tea, Ni­cola plays down the hor­ren­dous side-ef­fects of her treat­ments. ‘‘ I some­times come home a wee bit un­der the weather,’’ she says, re­fer­ring to the tremors, sweats and un­bear­able pain that He­len nurses her through. She calls He­len a ‘‘ se­vere ma­tron’’ and ‘‘ poor Hel’’. Un­able to bear it, He­len be­gins trim­ming a rose­bush, each snip of the se­ca­teurs adding an­other di­men­sion of seething anger to the di­a­logue.

It is this skill with words, es­pe­cially the use of spe­cific de­tails, that makes Gar­ner such a won­der­ful writer. Not a word is out of place, not a scene too many or too few.

Ni­cola has only just ar­rived when He­len dis­cov­ers a long-for­got­ten pump­kin in her garden. It looks fine on the out­side but when she cuts into it, the in­sides are noth­ing but dust. What bet­ter metaphor could there have been for the state of her friend’s de­cay?

When, af­ter a magic show the pair at­tend, Ni­cola says her favourite part was the ma­gi­cian say­ing, ‘‘ There are many ways to make a thing dis­ap­pear’’, we know she’s talk­ing not about a magic trick but her ill­ness.

It is this use of de­tail, com­bined with the coura­geous por­trayal of emo­tions — from He­len’s yearn­ing to be a good nurse and friend, to in­evitable ex­haus­tion and rage — that make this a book I cher­ish. Not only do I al­ways en­joy read­ing it, I be­come a bet­ter writer by do­ing so.

On the back cover, Peter Carey calls The Spare Room a per­fect novel. Not many are wor­thy of such praise, but this one is.

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