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The Spare Room: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 3, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Garner (Monkey Grip) employs her signature realism in this stunted novel about the infuriating and eye-opening experience of caring for a terminally ill loved one. Helen prepares a room in her Melbourne home for Nicola, an old friend who travels from Sydney to begin a course of alternative treatment for bowel cancer. The central conflict of the story centers around these treatments: Helen fears they may be doing more harm than good, while Nicola has undying faith in the unorthodox practices of the Theodore Institute (these revolve around vitamin C injections), leading Helen to question her ability to care for someone so deep in denial. Garner paints Nicola's unflinching optimism with a heavy hand, and her grand naïveté is unconvincing, a flaw that's hard to overlook in a novel about a cancer patient. As it wears on, the narrative becomes clouded by litanies of worsening symptoms and platitudes about death, and Helen's bickering about the treatment—while valid—become grating and tiresome. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From The New Yorker
Following a Melbourne-based writer as she cares for a friend dying of cancer, this is the first work of fiction in sixteen years from an Australian writer whose accomplished early novels were overshadowed by the controversial publication, in 1995, of a decidedly post-feminist investigation into a sexual-harassment scandal. Here the author’s aims seem to shift in the course of the novel, which at times seems very close to nonfiction: the Garner-like protagonist, attending a writers’ festival in Sydney, observes, in apparent reference to J. M. Coetzee, how “the big names had scrambled to see the Nobel laureate get his Australian citizenship in a tent.” Nonetheless, the work gains focus from Garner’s characteristically controlled and unsentimental tone: the train station is “a seven-minute walk from my house, twenty if you had cancer.”
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Top customer reviews
The good: The book is well-paced and interesting. Garner is a talented writer, and she describes beautifully the reality of caregiving. Here are some examples:
“We led (Nicola) into the spare room and she sat shivering on the edge of the bed. I banged down the window and switched on the oil heater. No, thank you—she didn’t want to drink, or eat, or wash, or go to the toilet. She was silent. Her head hung forward, as if a tiny fascinating scene were being enacted on her lap.”
Bessie, age five, who is denied attention due to Nicola’s needs, “...hesitated, glaring at me over her shoulder, long enough for me to see her pearly skin, the vital luster of her pouting lower lip.”
Description of a quack clinic: “The room within was painted a strange yellow, the color of controlled panic.”
At the realization she’d have no choice but to offer up the next few weeks to continuing Nicola’s care: “My heart was full of holes. Everything strong and purposeful was draining out of me. When my coffee came I could hardly lift the cup. I drove home. My desk was buried under sliding heaps of unread and unanswered mail. I had lost control of my life.”
I also enjoyed the vernacular of urban Australia. The story is set largely in Melbourne, and their everyday language is different from what I'm used to. That added another layer of interest.
The not-so-great: this is a chronicle of a debilitating and wondrous period in the author’s life. It’s really interesting to the reader, like driving past a wreck, but I like to see character growth. In that sense, the ending was a bit unsatisfying. Helen and all the other caregivers continue sacrificing themselves for Nicola right up until the last page. No changes.
However, the story contained two powerful reminders. One, to appreciate my life, in spite of the fact that I can no longer leap tall buildings. Spare Room imparts gratitude for the joy of relative health and independence. Two, to do everything in my power NOT to let caregiving mow me down, the next time I’m in that situation. So thanks to Helen Garner for sharing her story with us. I recommend this book.
I disagree with the Publisher's Weekly review which mentions that "Garner paints Nicola's unflinching optimism with a heavy hand, and her grand naïveté is unconvincing" - unconvincing? This made me laugh out loud. I know that we're all expected to deal with terminal illness with iron wit and stoic resolve. But from personal experience there is nothing that can prepare anyone for the reactions to terminal illness that one will face. And from this perspective I was happy to read something so ludicrous and far-fetched in Nicola's reactions... and the humour was definitely realistic!
It was a book that at times was quite a funny , but of course the underlying sadness could not be ignored, however that did not take over the tone of the book.
It was a very easy read, not a big book. I will probably pick it up again.
Am keen to read more of Helen Garners books.
My only disappointment was the feeling of a rushed ending. A period of time is condensed into one chapter. As it is not a long book, I wanted this to have been lengthened, although I can understand why Garner would not want to - as it stands the book is a close look at the short period of time where Nicola and Helen are together.
I thought it was well written and portrayed the difficulties of such a friendship well. Recommended.
The book centres on the emotional aspects surrounding death. How hard it is for some to "give up" and accept death, how hard it is for those around those dying, the burden of it and the range of emotions experienced - sadness, anger, loss, tiredness,helplessness and finally the guilt of relief. The feeling while being beside death of being on the outside of everyday life.
Told in a straightforward and honest manner, it is a good read.
Most recent customer reviews
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