A passionate end to a bohemian rhapsody
Helen Garner has written
a moving account of one
In her native Australia, Helen Garner is known for using the material of her life as the bedrock of her novels. Her debut, the semi-autobiographical Monkey Grip, exposed the messy, tangled lives of a hippie household in Seventies Melbourne. In The Spare Room, her first novel for 16 years, she tells the story of two 'old bohemians' forced to confront the indignities of sickness and death. As the narrator's name - Helen - hints, this, too, has its basis in reality; a few years ago, Garner helped to nurse a friend through her final illness. But The Spare Room is nothing so simple as a memoir. It is a piece of fiction at once artful, gripping and fiercely beautiful.
Nicola has stage-four bowel cancer and has abandoned chemotherapy for a punishing alternative regime: peroxide drips, intravenous vitamin C and endless pseudoscientific lectures. She is coming to Melbourne for treatment at the Theodore Institute, a place far less reputable than its dignified name suggests, and will be roosting in Helen's spare room. Theirs is an old friendship, founded in the hippie years, full of easy understanding and shared enthusiasms. Preparing Nicola's bedroom, Helen envisages jolly evenings spent cracking out tunes on the ukulele.
It soon becomes apparent that ukulele-playing will not be on the menu, that Nicola is a good deal sicker than Helen has realised and that the course of treatment she has determined on is making her iller yet. Helen is a capable nurse, adept at changing urine-soaked sheets and preparing appetising dishes on her prettiest crockery. 'How competent I was!' she thinks to herself. 'I would get a reputation for competence.'
But the task of nursing requires far more than these 'straightforward tasks of love and order'. Despite her evident agonies, Nicola refuses to consider palliative care, will barely agree to a prescription for morphine and requires Helen to collude with her in the belief that vast, cripplingly painful doses of vitamin C can really 'scoop the cancer cells out of your body'.
Nicola's terror of dying is at the root of her refusal to have proper treatment; the appeal of alternative medicine is that it promises to cheat death, to reverse disease, to recover health. Even the building that houses the Theodore Institute is sinister, painted 'a strange yellow, the colour of controlled panic', while the treatments meted out there resemble the arsenal of a medieval torture chamber. But it is Nicola's terrible, smiling refusal to confront what is happening that most appals and exhausts those who have rallied to care for her. 'You wear us out when you keep being stoical,' Helen finally announces. 'It's like a horrible mask. We want to smash it. We want to find you.'
How we die and how we stand to be with those who are dying are serious questions, but even at the most painful moments Garner maintains a characteristic lightness of touch, a combination of wit and lyricism that is immensely alluring. The brisk, unstinting honesty with which she recounts Helen's helplessly brimming rage, her struggle to care for someone she loves and also wants to murder ('I wanted to smash the car into a post, but only for her to die -- I would leave the keys in the ignition, grab my backpack and run for my life') is gripping. And though Helen hates the fact that 'death was in my house', the gift that this unwanted guest brings is a tremendous sensitivity to beauty, as economically and unsentimentally rendered as are Nicola's sufferings.
In the closing passages of this extraordinary, exhilarating novel, Garner fast-forwards to the final weeks of Nicola's life, condensing into a few paragraphs the months that lie ahead. Towards the end, Helen describes the experience of watching two Buddhists chanting over Nicola's deathbed as a 'scalding vigil'. And that is just what The Spare Room is: a burningly passionate account of the one experience we will all share -- the journey out of life.
This article was first published on July 6, 2008 at http://observer.guardian.co.uk
(R) thedailystar.net 2008