This review is cross-posted at Feminist Review.
The Spare Room
By Helen Garner
We learn very young that we cannot choose our family but that we can choose our friends, and we often believe that we would go to great lengths to protect them, as does Helen, the narrator in The Spare Room. This story is about a 15-year-old friendship between two women in their sixties, a period that is perhaps the busiest in a woman’s life with competing family, social and, in many cases still, professional demands.
Nicola, an artsy bohemian who turned her back on mainstream culture in the 1970s, goes to stay with Helen in her spare room in Melbourne so that she can undergo alternative vitamin-C treatments for her stage-four cancer. Selfless Helen, who initially does whatever is necessary to accommodate her friend, quickly butts heads with Nicola’s coping method of choice: denial. As Helen puts her life on hold caring for Nicola for a mere “fortnight,” which turns into three weeks, she quickly becomes overcome with fatigue. Her exhaustion stems not only from the constant care she feels her friend needs, but also from having to hold her tongue in the face of money-grubbing charlatans and her much-loved friend’s magical thinking.
It may be difficult to imagine this as light reading. However, Garner is a master of concision, and it is difficult to find even a single superfluous sentence in the 175 pages. In addition to shedding light on the limits of friendship, this book also celebrates key aspects of friendship between women: the validation of thoughts and feelings, the understanding and the laughter. In fact, it is Garner’s use of rich dark humour that knocks the stuffing out of death and illness in this book and keeps the narrative rolling.
Although many young women will feel that this scenario is still a long way off, Nicola’s harsh look back on what she made of her life will cause many to realize just how insidious and powerful mainstream culture is. Our strong and seemingly invincible bohemian mothers and aunts who chose their counter-culture lives in the 1970s are not always immune to the pervasiveness of the status quo and how it still manages to creep in and colour their basic personal views. This book gives us all a much needed reminder of the work that we as women still have ahead of us, not only in striving for equality in material terms, but also in acknowledging and validating our own personal struggles with mainstream culture, as we head down the road less traveled.
In short, I highly recommend this book not only for the quality of the writing, but also for the situation that everyone will be pushed one day to consider. This is a perfect book for an inter-generational book club.
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