Tag Archives: Death and dying in fiction

The Spare Room by Helen Garner: Stretched to the limits

Cover imageI’m sure this isn’t the first reread I’ve reviewed here but aside from Amy Bloom’s Rowing to Eden, which turned out to be made up of several collections of short stories, nothing comes to mind. Australian writer Helen Garner’s The Spare Room was published in 2008 and has recently been reissued. I remember reading it in proof and being impressed with it then and it’s lost none of its power in just over a decade since. Our narrator, Helen, has been asked by a much-loved friend if she can stay for three weeks while she undergoes treatment for cancer. What ensues will test the bounds of friendship to its limits.

Helen met Nicola fifteen years ago, becoming firm friends despite the distance between Nicola’s home in Sydney and Helen’s in Melbourne. Impressed by Nicola’s casual grace, bohemian life and independence, Helen tries not to appear shocked when she arrives, much diminished, or to seem astonished at her faith in the Theodore Institute which claims to cure cancer by administering large doses of vitamin C. Nicola breezily insists she can fend for herself but Helen is having none of it, sizing up the Institute as a bunch of charlatans while trying to keep an open mind for Nicola. As the weeks wear on, Helen becomes exhausted by the night sweats and bouts of pain that summon her to Nicola’s room, increasingly appalled by the wackiness of the Institute’s treatments, their prohibition of strong painkillers and her own mounting fury, both with the so-called doctors and with Nicola’s resolute belief in a cure. When Nicola’s niece, Iris, visits, Helen finds an ally. Between them, they convince Nicola to see an oncologist who advises surgery. At the end of the three weeks, their friendship has been strained but not yet snapped.

That night we took the bottle of Stoly down the rough path to the landing where, sitting on our jackets in the dark, we launched the long conversation that would become our friendship.

Garner’s sharp novella weighs in at just under 200 pages, drawing on her own experience of nursing a close friend to explore friendship, dying and the pernicious hope engendered by desperation. Helen’s anger rings out loud and clear against the cynical exploitation of the terminally ill and against Nicola’s insane optimism, a mask behind which she hides her terror. Glimmers of gallows humour lighten the subject’s grimness as Iris, Gab and Helen dissolve into hysteria, diffusing their fury at Nicola’s doggedly contrary attitude. Nicola is entirely believable: either monumentally selfish or brave in her determination – take your choice – but wholly human in her desperate need to hope. Helen counterbalances her beautifully, all practicality and organisation but helpless in the face of such need. Throughout it all flows compassion and love. Just as powerful the second time around, this is a clear-eyed view of death and our responses to it, explored through both the dying and the rest of us who must do what we can for them knowing that our turn will come.

Canongate Books: Edinburgh 2019 9781786896087 195 pages Paperback

Before Everything by Victoria Redel: A gorgeous paean of praise to friendship

Cover imageEvery now and then a book comes along about which it’s hard not to gush. Victoria’s Redel’s lovely Before Everything fits that bill for me. I was very much attracted by its premise – five women, friends since school, come together when one of them is dying – but I hadn’t expected the bonus of such graceful, elegant writing.

Anna’s cancer has recurred. She’s been in remission several times but is done with invasive surgery, debilitating chemotherapy and the emotional rollercoaster her illness has taken her on. She’s the lodestar of the Old Friends, the name the five adopted when they were eleven. Beautiful, clever and vivid, Anna can also be selfish, manipulative and bossy. They all know that but they love her, regardless, as do the many others that Anna has drawn into her orbit over the two decades she’s lived in her neighbourhood. The women gather themselves around Anna for what may be their last day of the never-ending conversation the five of them share, taking her out on an ill-advised outing, stepping a little carelessly on the toes of the women they think of as her new friends and struggling with the imminent loss of the woman they love dearly. Each of them has their own lives, troubled and otherwise, but Anna has always been at the centre. Meanwhile, Anna’s husband continues with the hard graft of caring for his dying wife despite their estrangement.

Redel uses a fragmentary structure for her novel – full of flashbacks, vignettes and anecdote – smoothly switching perspective between Anna, her friends and her husband. These are women who have seen each other through joy and misery, difficulty and triumphs, for decades. None of them can envisage a world in which they won’t rush to tell Anna of their news, fashioning the latest mishap into a story, confiding a fear or a hope. Redel neatly avoids the saccharine, portraying the women with all their flaws and capturing the intimacy of death when the world falls away, all attention focused on the dying. It’s a beautifully crafted novel. There are a multitude of quotes I could pull out but here’s a smattering to give you a flavour: ‘They have done so much laughing, these five, they’d managed to laugh their way through even the unlaughable’; ‘Fear was always there, a gauze between her and the vivid rest of her life’; ’She imagined her dresses flouncing through town, a flutter of hems waiting at a crosswalk, an A-line flare pressing a code at an ATM’ and perhaps my favourite ‘We are here. And then we’re not. For a little while, we are a story’. A gorgeous empathetic and tender portrait of friendship, shot through with a dry humour which steers it well clear of the maudlin, Before Everything is the first of Redel’s books to be published in the UK. I hope that Sceptre have plans for her other four.

It came as no surprise to find that Redel is a poet which often turns out to be the case when I’ve particularly enjoyed a novelist’s writing, the most obvious example being Helen Dunmore. It may be a little presumptuous but I like to think that she would have loved this novel as much as I do.