But first, a plot summary:
The narrator Helen, who is a writer (yes yes, more about this later), lives alone in a settled, domestic way next door to her daughter and the daughter's family in a Melbourne suburb. Helen is preparing the spare room for the arrival of Nicola, her friend of fifteen years. Nicola is dying of cancer, but is convinced that her life can be saved by a Melbourne clinic offering 'alternative' treatments that will be fiendishly expensive. Nicola has asked if she can stay with Helen for three weeks while she has the treatments.
Nicola is ill enough to need close attention and periodically intense, full-on nursing, but is still convinced that the clinic's treatment will cure her. In the course of her stay, Helen becomes more and more enraged: by Nicola's behaviour; by the behaviour of the people at the clinic (and by extension the clinic's disgraceful ripoff behaviour, and by further extension all exploitative quackery, and by even further extension all exploitation of other people's weaknesses); by Nicola's impending death (and by extension death in general); and, finally, by her own rage.
Helen's own rage enrages her, and dismays and weakens her. 'The one thing I was sure of,' she thinks later, remembering the afternoon before Nicola was due to fly home to Sydney and back into the care of her long-suffering niece Iris, 'was that if I did not get Nicola out of my house tomorrow I would slide into a lime-pit of rage that would scorch the flesh off me, leaving nothing but a strew of pale bones on a landscape of sand.'
Finally the treatment ends and Nicola goes home to Sydney, not a moment too soon for all concerned; Helen is left not only exhausted but also bewildered and appalled by the feelings that the visit has brought to the surface in her, and the gap between the ideal and the real on several fronts.
This whole novel rests on what's actually a highly unusual set of circumstances. People with stage four cancer are usually not well enough to travel alone, much less to invite themselves to stay with a friend in another city, or to want to do so. Everything that happens in this novel happens because the dying Nicola is in profound denial about her condition.
She is, of course, not well enough to travel alone either, and goes into a state of near-collapse in the airport after what is, for the well, an easy hour-long flight from Sydney to Melbourne. The reason, we discover later, is that she has had, just before her trip, one of the ridiculous-quackery Vitamin C treatments ("High dosage Vitamin C will kill off lumps of cancer -- most doctors don't know this stuff") to which she knows she always has an extreme reaction.
One of the most distressing moments in the book (and there are many) occurs at this point, where the narrator Helen is forced to choose, in a public place, between the distress of a dear friend who is too weak to stand up and the distress of a five-year-old granddaughter:
Nicola couldn't sit up straight ... she was shuddering from head to foot like someone who has been out beyond the break too long in winter surf.
'Bessie,' I said, 'Listen to me, sweetheart. See that lady over there, behind the counter? Past the toilets? I want you to walk up to her and tell her we need a wheelchair. Right away. Will you be a big girl and do that?'
She stared at me. 'What if they don't have wheelchairs in airports?'
'Bess. I need you to help us.'
Nicola turned on her a smile that would once have been beautiful and warm, but was now a rictus.
'But I don't want to go without you,' said Bessie on a high note.
'All right. You stay here with Nicola, and I'll go.'
'Nanna.' She gripped me with both hands.
'We have to get a wheelchair. Go to that lady and ask her. Otherwise I don't know how we'll get out of here.'
I pushed her away from me. She set out along the carpeted hall with stiff, formal steps. I saw her rise on to her toes and try to show herself above the counter's edge.
This is maybe the first moment of rage, though it's not spelled out. Garner has always left spaces in her writing for the reader to come in and feel whatever he or she might feel, to think whatever he or she might think. One of the things that may well be happening for a reader -- certainly for this reader -- here, between the lines of dialogue and its frightful airport silences (for many is the silent moment of horrible dawning realisation that has taken place in an airport lounge) is rage with an adult for allowing the development of a situation in which a child must be pushed to her limits.
A similar moment occurs again when Bessie comes next door into her grandmother's house, where she has never been unwelcome, to do her flamenco dance for her Nanna and her Nanna's friend, and she's a few steps in when they notice her nose is running:
'Oh shit.' Nicola got off the stool and backed away. 'I'm sorry, darling, but you can't come in here with a cold. I've got no resistance left. Helen, you'll have to send her home.' She shuffled as fast as she could down the hall into the spare room, and pulled the door shut behind her.
I picked up a pencil and took a breath to start explaining cell counts and immune systems, but Bessie didn't ask. She stood in the centre of the room with her arms dangling. Her face was blank.
The rage isn't simple and isn't always about Nicola; sometimes it even goes in the opposite direction and manifests as ferocious protectiveness. 'I thought, I will kill anyone who hurts you. I will tear them limb from limb. I will make them wish they had never been born. Almighty God, I thought, to whom all hearts are open.' In a most Garner-like way, she doesn't tell you for what purpose God is being invoked in this prayer, so I looked it up: it's Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts. In this context that unspoken plea is very ambiguous indeed.
Friendship can be far more durable than marriage, and can sometimes involve feelings quite as complex and as strong, but it isn't a relationship that was meant to withstand living in the same house, as everyone who has spent time in shared households knows. This is not to say that no friendship survives it, only that it can be very testing, and the longer the stay the harder the test, even when you are both young and well and have no close family, much less when you are both of an age to be grandparents.
In the flash-forwards at the end of the novel, Helen demonstrates how much easier it is, by comparison, to take it in turns with others to help Nicola through the last stages of her life, and to stay in loving, sardonically realistic postcard-and-email contact with her when they are in different cities: 'I would write to her on a postcard: "I miss you. I'm bored. I'd rather be scrubbing shit off Iris's bathroom tiles."' It's the unrelenting domestic proximity to Nicola and her deluded self-(mis)management that stretches the friendship to its limits, not least because Nicola's delusional state means she needs constant monitoring, chauffeuring and nursing, sometimes all three at once.
We conduct our friendships in accordance with some internalised ideal of what friendship is; and we judge our friends and ourselves by the same ideal. But it doesn't get tested in this kind of extreme way very often. There are probably far more one-off acts of demented bravery or sacrifice performed in the name of friendship than there are protracted episodes of steady, grinding endurance, where our life's work is hijacked, our granddaughters dismayed, our washing machines given a serious workout and our patience worn so thin you could read the paper through it.
Friends make room for each other in their lives, especially when one of them is in desperate need of help, but there will always be strong competing claims. Those sorts of moment-by-moment and inch-by-inch negotiations are the lifeblood of fiction: the way we endlessly shift, this way and that, between the people in our lives, between love and responsibility, between inclination and obligation, making room here, cutting corners there, making unsatisfactory compromises and horrible painful decisions that please no-one.
One thing this book brings out very strongly is the difference between the physical demands of carer-duty -- Helen carries these out gladly, even when they become heavy, as she has always known she would -- and the far more onerous and treacherous burden of one's own feelings about the caree, about her behaviour and her situation.
As so often in her work, Garner sets this conflict up in such a way as to evoke from readers their own similar experiences (like feeling your brain blow up as you stand by in the role of officially designated carer to someone who has been told they must not be left alone after surgery or treatment; say, the sister who reverts to ancient childhood patterns of sibling-rivalry strategies even when drugged to the eyeballs and unable to walk straight, or to the friend, also still full of drugs, who point-blank refuses do any of the things she's been told by the doctor that she must do. Ahem.)
And everyone who's done it knows that the wet sheets and vomit bowls are the least of it, that they are, indeed, nothing: it's the rage, and the helplessness of the rage, in both carer and caree. If you are sick and helpless, you hate the dependence and lash out (though Nicola is not like this; indeed, her sense of entitlement is one of the things that brings this character so vividly to life, though she has moments -- which, again most readers will recognise from their own lives -- of saying with a kind of noble woundedness whenever the carer's exasperation shows, 'No no, this is too hard for you, I'll go and stay in a hotel.'). But as a carer, you cannot yell at a sick person and you feel monstrous if you do. They are already suffering enough, and they will probably cry. And that will make you want to shoot yourself.
You do these things for family because you are, at the deepest level, stuck with them, as they with you. Robert Dessaix, in his review of The Spare Room for The Monthly in April, was harsh in a glancing way about what he sees as the book's implication that if Nicola had got married and had a proper family she wouldn't need to be impinging on someone else's.
But I see it more as a tension that is there in almost everyone's life: the dues to family are monumental and non-negotiable, while those to friends have invisible, expanding boundaries, 'like gold to airy thinness beat'. The boundaries might go on stretching forever. Or not.
Next -- Part 2: FAITH