Tested in the shadow of death
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.