A taut telling of a tough treatment


FICTION/The Spare Room By Helen Garner Canongate, 195pp. £12.99:HELEN GARNER ONCE lighted on this sentence from Thackeray's Vanity Fair:"In a carriage sat a discontented woman in a green mantle"; she dislikes the knowingness of the omniscient narrator. So, it is not surprising The Spare Roomis written as a personal record; first-person narrated and, perhaps because she is also a journalist, her subject is current and disputatious. She is a veteran and a survivor of genre-bending commotion, and this new, compact novel after a 15-year gap shows she is still up for treading the boundaries between fiction and opinion pieces. And while her focus is always on lived experience, her prose moves easily between life-changing decisions and the daily imperative of domestic tasks.

The novel reads as a polemic against rogue treatments for terminal cancer radiated with glimpses of social comedy - as in a discussion on whether the coffee for the coffee enemas should be organic. All those years ago Wyndham Lewis called for "fanatical scrupulosity"; the kind of fidelity to life that can be reproduced in fiction and this is what we get in The Spare Room. The shape and pace of the narrative imitates the sharp time and task boundaries of the novel.

The book itself is a little beauty, nice to hold with beautiful end-papers and a silk marker to hold your place.

The novel opens with Helen, a writer in her mid-60s (also the author's name) freshening up her spare room prior to the arrival of an old friend. Nicola has been invited to stay for three weeks because she signed up for a course of ghastly, expensive, rogue treatments for cancer at Melbourne's Theodore Institute.

Nicola is old stock Australian, hippyish, her gracious manner mixed with a touch of hauteur. She is in denial about the seriousness of her condition and insists the massive vitamin C injections, "ozone saunas", "cupping" and a compound of ground apricot stones will simply blast away her cancer. Days and nights are spent in a round of clinic-ferrying and sheet-washing - at least twice a night. Helen tries to hold her tongue as the treatments exacerbate Nicola's pain and cause loss of bodily function.

A most appealing feature of this novel is the elegance and taut style of the narrative voice as she gives expression to large and small questions - friendship, death, tolerance, truthfulness, and the work of the day. The authentic, down-under voice sustains the work through thoughtful and dialogue sequences.

Nicola's character is less realised than Helen's, whose self-image is severely tested - "I was supposed to be good in a crisis". We feel her gut-taut patience at Nicola's delusions about her "dozens of darling old school friends . . . (who'll) take me into their homes with all their hearts" - and wash her clean after sweats and oozings.

Kate Bateman is a tutor in the schools of English, drama & film and of education and lifelong learning at University College Dublin