Tag Archives: Helen Garner

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

Books to Look Out for in January 2018: Part One

Cover imageRound about now at the fag-end of the literary year, I begin to look forward eagerly to what’s coming next. The first batch of goodies kick starting this January is dominated by Australian writers, beginning with a new Peter Carey which is always something worth looking out for. A Long Way from Home is set in 1953 when the Bobbseys arrive in Bacchus Marsh, Australia. Their neighbour Willie soon becomes drawn into their orbit, persuaded to be their navigator on the Redex Trial, a car race that circumnavigates the continent. ‘As they drive into unknown territory, and cross the outback, Willie will discover the heartrending truth about his own and his country’s past’ say the publishers which sounds very promising.

Less well-known outside Australia than Carey, Helen Garner also has a book out in January. Stories: Collected Short Fiction is being issued in celebration of her seventy-fifth birthday and comprises short stories ‘all told with her characteristic sharpness of observation, honesty and humour. Each one a perfect piece, together they showcase Garner’s mastery of the form’ according to the publishers. I’ve only read The Spare Room but my memories of that are of clean, crisp prose so I have my eye out for this collection.

Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come covers many geographical miles taking its readers from Sydney to Paris and Sri Lanka following three people: Pippa, a writer; Celeste embroiled in an affair and Ash who suffered a tragedy in childhood. ‘Driven by riveting stories and unforgettable characters, here is a dazzling meditation on intimacy, loneliness and our flawed perception of other people… …a mesmerising novel [which] feels at once firmly classic and exhilaratingly contemporary’ say the publishers, covering all the bases. I remember very much enjoying de Kretser’s Questions of Travel a few years back.

Around the world to the American South for Eleanor Henderson’s The Twelve Mile Straight, set in Georgia in 1930 where a man is lynched for allegedly raping a white sharecropper’s daughter who has given birth to twins, one clearly white, the other suspiciously brown. Surrounded by gossip, Elma brings up her babies helped by her father and the young black housekeeper who is as close to her as a sister. ‘It soon becomes clear that the ties that bind all of them together are more intricate than any could have imagined. A web of lies begins to collapse around the family, destabilizing their precarious world and forcing all to reckon with the truth’ say the publishers, hinting at all manner of things. This one could easily backfire but it’s such an intriguing premise, a little reminiscent of Laird Hunt’s The Evening Road which I enjoyed very much,  and it’s much praised by Ann Patchett, apparently.

That’s it for the first selection of January’s new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should any take your fancy. Second batch to follow shortly, all with their feet firmly planted in the UK.