Good Reading : May 2008
cover story It drives madness into the soul. It leaches out virtue. It injects poison into a friendship and makes a mockery of love.’ Now all this may make The Spare Room sound like a gloomy saga of woe and misery, but it’s nothing of the kind. The novel pulses with a heightened sense of life and feeling. In precise prose, dense with meaning, Garner describes moments in daily life which encapsulate and illuminate relationships.The testing of the friendship between Helen and Nicola comes to a peak about two-thirds of the way through the book, when Helen explodes into a rage that momentarily clears the air. ‘In the scene after the burst of rage, where they all sit along the verandah and have a cup of tea,’ said Garner, ‘a sort of sweetness enters into their relationship, a sort of calm comes back, because the rage has exploded the deception out of the way for the moment. But it quickly comes back’. The book is very much grounded in the events of Garner’s own life, as is nearly all of her fiction. She’s resigned to having conversations about the nature of fiction vs non-fiction. ‘By calling it fiction, what I’m saying is, my contract with the reader is different from the sort of contract I have when I’m writing non-fiction’, she said. ‘I’ve taken all sorts of liberties with the material. I feel justified in taking those liberties and I feel that by taking them I am in fact writing fiction. I’ve always written close to real experience. But even within one book I’ll move back and forth [between fiction and non-fiction], and I feel that’s a fiction writer’s prerogative. I could allow myself the liberties of compression, and alteration, and invention. I’ve called the main character Helen because by saying this is a novel I didn’t want to say “and I invented all these feelings” – I certainly didn’t. In the last couple of years four people close to me have died – which is what you expect when you’re in your sixties, people around you start to die. But I’ve been shocked by the violence of the feelings that were aroused in me in those situations.’ The novel is prefaced by a quote from Louise Glück: ‘… or is this the way the heart behaves when it grieves?’ Helen’s increasing rage at Nicola’s refusal to face reality is compounded by her own shame at feeling that rage. ‘As Nicola refuses to countenance or to feel certain things, it’s as if those things are there to be felt by someone else: if she won’t feel them, someone else has to, so people around her are in a turmoil and their own sorrow can’t be expressed,’ said Garner. ‘If a person won’t admit that they’re dying, and they won’t even admit that you are nursing them 24 hours a day, then you feel that all your labour is in vain.That’s terribly enraging and frustrating.Those emotions become completely unbearable and actually you feel very ashamed of them. Everyone likes to think that if their friend is in trouble they would put themselves out to help; but the awful bad faith that comes of not accepting reality is very destructive.’ Helen’s rage is also directed at the charlatans who administer the cancer treatment to Nicola. ‘I think it’s so terrible, that people prey upon the dying and take advantage of their terror and their gullibility,’ said Garner. ‘But you see the thing also is that you come up against the personal agency of the suffering person: the dying person so doesn’t want to die that they’ll accept any form of treatment that’s offered, or some people will, and even if there’s no scientific basis to it – in fact its scientific ability may have been completely dismantled by experiment, but they cling to it. And it’s very hard to draw a line between such practitioners who are deluded and who really do believe in what they’re doing, and those who are complete conmen. Nicola in the book is so desperate that she’ll follow any course open to her – Helen actually saves her from a genuine conman who’s mentioned early on. But the terror of death and the terror that stops a person acknowledging that they’re going to die opens them to the depredations of bad people and deluded people, and the trouble is, when you’re up against those people, you don’t know which they are.’ I commented that although I have yet to be tested in the matter, I do find it mystifying when people cling to life so, even when that life consists almost entirely of pain and suffering. I asked Garner how she felt about that: does she fear dying? ‘Because over these last few years I’ve been with several people who’ve died, I’ve seen how differently people approach it,’ she replied. ‘In the book, Helen talks about her sister having died and having accepted her death and bowed to it in a way that was productive of grace, really, a kind of acceptance that she couldn’t be saved. She was able to stay at home and die in her own bed, surrounded by her family and friends, because she wasn’t fighting and faking and desperately flailing against her fate. I guess I always hope that I would be able to accept what couldn’t be changed.’ Well, I wept buckets at the end of this intensely moving book, but I also laughed along the way (there are some very funny moments) and devoured each page greedily. Helen Garner’s new novel is a triumph on all fronts. The Spare Room is published by Text Publishing, rrp $29.95.