Oct/Nov 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

Tell me the bitter truth

Review by Jill Noel Shreve

The Spare Room.
Helen Garner.
Henry Holt. 2009. 175 pp.
ISBN 9780805088885.

"How much will I sacrifice for someone I love?" In her novel The Spare Room, Helen Garner poses this question. She paints a picture of friendship between two elderly women and within this picture, gives her audience a concrete image of what sacrifice really requires.

Set in Melbourne, Australia and told in first person, The Spare Room opens with Helen fluffing pillows, tucking sheets, and opening the shades in her spare room. She then flits off to the airport to pick up her dear friend, Nicola and the truth arrives; Nicola is dying from cancer. This revelation startles Helen but she regains her composure and responds by gathering all the strength inside herself to care for her friend.

The days march on while Nicola receives bogus treatments and her condition worsens. Even though her life is slipping however she retains her insouciant attitude. Helen tries to care for her while watching her friend deteriorate before her eyes. Lies abound in the plot, lies about Nicola's health, about the cancer treatment, about her longevity, about her ability and until Helen demands the truth—that the death of her Nicola is near.

Garner capitalizes on the themes of sacrifice, truth and death with details and imagery found in her book. She juxtaposes Nicola, one who avoids everything, against Helen, one who exposes everything and these themes easily emerge.

The Spare Room isn't a fast-paced novel, but it is evocative. Garner uses a relationship full of emotion to lure her audience in. And just like her other works, Garner exceeds expectations. She pulls the curtain back and shows a world of intimacy between two women nose-to-nose with death. Then she leaves her audience pondering, "How much will I sacrifice for someone I love?"


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