The Spare Room By Helen Garner was a book I had been waiting for for quite a while. Helen Garner's last few books have been non-fiction and while I have enjoyed them I have been looking forward to another novel.
You would probably call The Spare Room a novella - I finished it in a day and I would have finished it in one sitting if my life plans would have allowed for that! I was on a bit of a time restriction too as I am going to be listening to Garner speak at the Sydney Writer's Festival this weekend and I wanted to have the book completed by then.
The Spare Room is told from the perspective of "Helen" - a character that shares a lot of similarities with her author namesake (apparently the author has said that the book is not autobiographical). Helen is a woman in her early 60's living in Melbourne, Australia in a house beside her daughter, son-in-law and 2 young grandchildren (including a gorgeously precocious 5 year old, Bessie).
The book opens as Helen is preparing her spare room for the arrival of her friend Nicola from Sydney. Nicola has been diagnosed with a fatal cancer and is coming to Melbourne to be treated by an alternative health care clinic. Helen is extremely dubious and skeptical of the benefits Nicola will actually receive from this treatment and this scepticism really forms the crux of the story as the tension builds between the doubting Helen, who is providing constant care to her extremely unwell friend, and the ever hoping (some would say in denial) Nicola.
The story moves fast and yet as the reader you never feel rushed, the story seems to unfold as it needs to. I was with Helen the whole way and could feel her frustration with and sadness for Nicola - and herself.
Towards the end of the novel the tension within Helen has reached breaking point and as she trys to take some time for herself while Nicola is at the treatment clinic she writes;
"My heart was full of holes. Everything strong and purposeful was draining out me".
Such simple writing really but so strong and honest.
I loved this book - I was moved to tears by the ending and I am greatly looking forward to hearing the real life Helen talk about her work this weekend.