The Spare Room – Helen Garner

The spare roomMy book choices at the moment are largely dictated by what I can learn from them to infect my own writing. So choosing a Helen Garner novel was driven by the fast approaching stage where I need to revise my own manuscript to give heft to the relationship between my two lead (female) characters.

And who better to show me how to write a good female relationship than Helen Garner? I’ve had this book (in hard copy for a change) for a while now but never got around to reading it mainly because I thought it would be sad and depressing because it was about someone with terminal cancer. And it is – sad, that is, but I’ve discovered all over again what a wonderful writer Helen Garner is.

This book made me cry actual tears – like the proverbial ‘laugh out loud’, of which I’ve always been slightly suspicious that authors of those words didn’t actually ‘laugh out loud’. How did she do it?

The subject matter helps – the main character Helen has a friend from Sydney come to stay in the spare room in her house in Melbourne for three weeks while she undergoes an alternative therapy to treat the cancer that she can’t admit to herself is going to kill her. But the emotion stirring Garner evokes isn’t as simple as a heart-wrenching topic. Plenty of other authors have done it, and done it badly.

I looked back at the sections that made me cry and I think what did it was the perfectly timed and constructed sentences of dialogue. The line I loved the most was said by Nicola after she and Helen see a magician’s show. Nicola tells Helen what she though was her favourite part of the show. Of all the amazing tricks he performed, she says “But Hel. My absolute best bit was at the very start, when he looked right at me and said ‘There are many ways to make a thing disappear’.” So succinct, so clever and so ripe with misunderstanding, misplaced hope and despair.

What this story does so well is deal with the mixed emotions of caring for someone who is very sick but refuses to believe she won’t get well. Nicola, the friend who stays in the spare room, is convinced the awful alternative therapy she is having will cure her cancer. Helen can see that it won’t but how can she come down hard on her friend when she has nothing left to hope for? Helen is also deeply suspicious of the treatment and the motives of the people who administer it. Garner writes about being angry, frustrated and powerless and the guilt that those emotions evoke. She writes about this topic without sentimentality, which is easy to say but very hard to do.

Helen Garner apparently did nurse a friend who had terminal cancer and it shows in this book. The descriptions of the physical earthquakes that shake Nicola’s body as it gives up on life are harrowing. The scale of the book is small – over three weeks, located almost entirely in Helen’s house and with few characters and I think this also helps to ratchet up the emotional scenes. Garner gives herself little action and detail to hide behind. That’s something I’m trying to train myself to do as well, rather than keep adding actions and events to my story instead of dealing with the emotions that should already be there.

Stylistically, Garner writes in what others have called a conversational tone and in fact there’s lots of conversation in the story. She writes almost entirely in scenes with few narrative breaks between them. I was most interested in this, since I’ve managed to write an whole first draft of a 114,000 word novel almost entirely in scenes. The Spare Room is very short – just 195 pages so there’s not space for long narratives. I pulled out an old copy of Garner’s Cosmo Cosmolina and found it’s the same – mainly scenes, little narrative. I was very heartened by this and realised I may be able to write a book mainly composed of scenes too.

And again in this story, repetition of character traits, just as Kate Atkinson had done in Life After Life. Something to think about.

Anyway, this book has earned the impressive plaudits given it by writers like Peter Carey and glowing reviews from The Independent, The Guardian and The Age, not to mention the prizes and nominations. It can be read in one sitting, but make sure  not in public if you don’t want anyone to see the tears.