Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Spare Room

"My initial reason for writing is that I need to shape things so I can make them bearable or comprehensible to myself. It's my way of making sense of things that I've lived and seen other people live, things I'm afraid of, or that I long for."~Helen Garner

PREMISE: A woman in Melbourne, Australia offers her spare room to an old friend who lives in Sydney and is seeking an alternative medical treatment to battle terminal cancer.

In The Spare Room, Australian author Helen Garner returns to fiction for the first time in 15 years. It was surely worth the wait, as her latest offers a realistic (often wry) examination of the tug-of-war between life and death, patients and caregivers. The plot of this very brief (192 page) novel, that reads more like a memoir, is obvious. However, if you are a conscientious reader you will recognize (and appreciate) how small, subtle moments change lives, and you'll be rapt by Garner's attention to detail. Her best scenes are understated but nuanced in such a way that they become immensely powerful. Take note of the graceful, concise writing in Chapter One (a few short paragraphs on pages 4-5), where Helen, in the midst of preparing her spare room for her friend's arrival, breaks a mirror. It is a chilling moment that foreshadows, on many different levels, all that is to come between two, very different women--Helen, the caregiver, who has lived a "traditional" life as a wife and mother and Nicola, the patient, who has lived (or has she?) a more artistic, "bohemian" lifestyle. The circumstances that reunite these two old friends will test their strengths and weaknesses, their belief systems and coping mechanisms. Helen Garner has written a deeply-affecting novel that is a beautiful tribute to the power and frailty of friendship and how it can transform amid the challenges of life.