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Pickle Me This

April 25, 2009

The Spare Room by Helen Garner

Oh, first person narrators, ever so cunning and manipulative. How luring are their points of view, and how they sway us from the very first sentence, because after all, they’re doing the telling. As Helen, the narrator of Helen Garner’s novel The Spare Room begins, “First, in my spare room, I swivelled the bed on to a north-south axis. Isn’t that supposed to align the sleeper with the planet’s positive energy flow, or something?” Stepping away, we can see that she’s taking great care to appear to take care, but she also has no idea what she’s doing.

Helen is preparing her spare room for her friend Nicola’s arrival. Nicola has been suffering from terminal cancer for a long time, flitting from one experimental treatment to another with no signs of improvement, and she’s arriving in Melbourne now to stay with Helen for three weeks whilst undergoing another round of treatment at a clinic there.

At first, Helen is happy to host her old friend, and while certainly shocked by her decline and appalled by the side-effects of the treatment she receives, she is willing to go out of her way to be helpful, to release her inner-nurse. She makes soups, changes the sheets, transports Nicola to and from the clinic. Behind Nicola’s back, however, she notes considerable frustrations, primarily with Nicola’s inability to accept her fate. Helen remembers her own sister’s death from cancer: “She accepted her death sentence quietly, without mutiny; perhaps, we thought in awe, she even welcomed it. She laid down her gun. She let us cherish her. We nursed her.”

What Nicola requires of those around her, however, will not be so easy. What she demands of Helen, in addition to the nursing and the hosting that she seems to take for granted, is that Helen believe she will eventually recover, that the treatment will start working and by the middle of next week, she’ll be rid of the cancer. Which Helen is unwilling to do or even just incapable of doing, the futility of Nicola’s struggle staring her straight down in the face.

As the days go by, Helen becomes more and more frustrated by Nicola’s forced insouciance, her smiles, her inability to face the truth. She is also exhausted by the effort of caring for her friend, and by the isolation of the caregiver role. She is soon unable to humour Nicola anymore, to accommodate her need for planetary alignment, and she breaks, forcing her friend to see the reality that this cancer is going to kill her.

It’s a complicated climax, this moment, when we’re relieved that Helen has finally out and said it, and yet it’s discomforting to be feel our sympathy is with Helen, who has just proven herself to be an utter bully, who is behaving in ways most of us wouldn’t like to admit we’re capable of. It’s disquieting to identify with a character acting in a way that is so unsympathetic, but she is the narrative voice, and she’s so blunt and honest. It’s perfectly understandable. You’ll find yourself wanting to wring poor Nicola’s neck.

This is a perfect novel. It’s also quite short, but I’ve written this much, and I could go on and on (but I won’t). Because there is substance, layers and layers of. At its root about friendship, which Garner refers to here as a “long conversation”. As well as family, and belonging, and imposition, understanding, and proprietorship of each other and ourselves. Garner’s narrator fascinating to consider, her motivations, what her words and actions reveal. This novel is quiet in its force, and enormous for the space it gives to ponder.

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