All the action takes place over the course of three weeks and describes the experience of a woman in Melbourne, Helen, as she finds herself looking after a friend from Sydney, Nicola, who is dying of bowel cancer. The feelings and emotions experienced by Nicola are never described, and yet one might have assumed that this would be the novel's main focus. It quickly becomes clear to both Helen and the reader that this is because Nicola herself is in complete denial about the situation. Nicola is keen to pursue alternative therapy treatment for her disease, and Helen feels her duty as a friend to enable this to take place. She hates to be critical of anything which has a remote chance of working, when the prognosis as stated by mainstream doctors has been so bleak, but she also becomes increasingly aware that there are some charlatans at work in the alternative field, and that she is the only one able to stop her friend's possibly premature and painful self-destruction. Both main characters are in their early sixties; intelligent people, mature and experienced enough through their travels to have a clear eye for a different approach, never assuming that Western medicine is the only way. Sure enough, a little research reveals that Helen Garner has drawn quite heavily on her own experience, and that many of the components of the novel come from details in the author's own life. It is tempting to think that Helen Garner consciously made the choice to use her own first name for the main character, as she wanted to focus on the actual emotions that she felt as her friend was dying, whether or not they were very pleasant to hear, acceptable, justified - or even very understandable. Possibly Helen Garner felt that in fiction she would be able to set down a wider approach to the situation than she herself felt when confronted with it. The novel makes a brave effort at an impartial view, accurately told, of what feels to all those concerned like an intolerable situation.
Helen arrives in plenty of time to pick Nicola up from the airport, but she wasn't expecting to see her friend look so sick, so sick that she could hardly walk. She is convinced that after three weeks of this alternative treatment she will be cured of her cancer. Helen knows that there is no miracle cure for the final stages of terminal cancer, but trying to convince Nicola is another matter.
The story is about two friends, one with end-stage cancer, Nicola, and the other, Helen, takes care of her, for a short while, in her spare room. The story is a thinly veiled reference to the death of Helen Garner's friend, Jenya Osbourne. Helen Garner said in an interview, "In the past four or five years several people I've been close to and loved have died: both my parents, one of my sisters and three close friends. I was surprised and appalled to discover that the feelings you have when you're looking after a dying person are not at all the kind of fantasised Florence Nightingale things you might hope for, but there can often be a very dark, semi-conscious struggle and you find in yourself emotions that are ugly and frighten you and fill you with shame. I felt I couldn't be the only person who knew those feelings." It's difficult to review this book unless you have cared for a dying loved one over a span of time ... Folks who have, feel she hits the nail right on the head in her descriptions of Helen's thoughts, and emotions, as she cares for Nicola. :) In Helen Garner's book The Feel of Steel she discusses the guilty secret of book people everywhere.
I really enjoyed a collection of Helen Garner's short stories which I read relatively recently, and looked forward to giving her novel, The Spare Room, a go.
It was a little hard to read at times - the raw honesty of friendship, even in despair.
Both women are in their 60s and on their own, and it becomes a struggle between needing help and asking for it, wanting to help but knowing what personal limits there are, and the boundaries of friendship and love.
I'm going to read it again and will do a better review.
You've got to love a scene that concludes with a couplet from an art film and bottoms out with a shot of caffeine: in fact I think, I'd guess, That No does not exist. I'd like to write the director a fan letter.
It is billed as a novel, but the main character besides being called Helen is also a writer, and it reads like non fiction.
She is also one of Australia's most respected non-fiction writers, and received a Walkley Award for journalism in 1993.