cover image The Spare Room

The Spare Room

Helen Garner, . . Holt, $22 (175pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-8888-5

Garner (Monkey Grip ) employs her signature realism in this stunted novel about the infuriating and eye-opening experience of caring for a terminally ill loved one. Helen prepares a room in her Melbourne home for Nicola, an old friend who travels from Sydney to begin a course of alternative treatment for bowel cancer. The central conflict of the story centers around these treatments: Helen fears they may be doing more harm than good, while Nicola has undying faith in the unorthodox practices of the Theodore Institute (these revolve around vitamin C injections), leading Helen to question her ability to care for someone so deep in denial. Garner paints Nicola’s unflinching optimism with a heavy hand, and her grand naïveté is unconvincing, a flaw that’s hard to overlook in a novel about a cancer patient. As it wears on, the narrative becomes clouded by litanies of worsening symptoms and platitudes about death, and Helen’s bickering about the treatment—while valid—become grating and tiresome. (Feb.)