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What I'm Reading
Book discussions with a focus on the writer's craft

The Spare Room by Helen Garner



Setting a performance within a novel: what it can achieve
A friend, whose opinion I trust, raved about a novel she had just read called, The Children's Bach, by Helen Garner.  My bookstore didn't have a copy available, so while I waited, I read Garner's more recent novel, The Spare Room, and I am pleased to report that it too was a fantastic read and I feel excited about discovering a new writer.


Though Helen Garner has been well known in her native Australia since the late seventies, I had never heard of her. The Spare Room, published in 2008, is her most recent novel and because of its beautifully direct and intimate tone, it hugs the border between fiction and memoir.  Narrated in the first person by a woman who is hosting an old friend for an extended stay while she receives an alternative treatment for cancer, the voice reflects a kind, but practical woman who is firmly in control.  Her name is Helen, an obvious stand-in for the author.


Once her friend Nicola arrives, they retrieve the old fondness, their banter expressive and full of familiarity.  But soon, the strain of caring for a sick friend shows itself, and what is most difficult for Helen is not the sheets she must wash daily because of the copious night sweats that are a result of the treatment, but Nicola's presumption that the cancer will soon be driven away. She won't allow skepticism; she demands from Helen the same trust and belief in the cure that she has. This is an emotional strain for Helen and a source of ongoing tension. Here it is in play when Nicola announces she has a four o'clock appointment with the alternative doctor:


"I'm coming with you."
"Oh no, darling—I'll take the train. Just point me in the direction of the station."
'You're not in any condition to walk to the station."
"Of course I am! Look at me!" She spread her arms...
"What about yesterday? I didn't know what to do. You could hardly put one foot in front of the other."
"Oh, Hel! Did I give you a fright?" She gave a gutsy laugh. "You mustn't worry when I get the shivers. It's only a side effect of the vitamin C driving out the toxins" (19-20).


Nicola's inability to accept her condition or indeed to see the huge demands her stay with Helen imposes, turns her into a child. More than once, Helen must play rescuer and increasingly, she sees the doctor as a racketeer preying on desperate people. It's an engrossing, sticky situation that escalates, secretly, into a battle.


Towards the end of the novel, after the two friends have a heart to heart and Nicola seems to grasp Helen's reality, they go to a magician's performance that Helen wants to review. Sitting at the bar together, facing the stage, all seems to be repaired between them. But when the magician focuses his attention on Nicola and tells her, in a seductive tone, that there are many ways to make a thing disappear, she is hooked. What follows is a performance of seamlessly executed sleights of hand that mesmerize the room. Things do disappear. The magician seems to have command not only of his audience but of reality itself.  It's a powerful, remarkable scene. At the outset, I was reminded of the moment in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice when Aschenbach glimpses a fellow passenger on the boat, an old man in a party of young revelers who is cleverly disguised as a youth. His lewd, drunken gestures haunt Aschenbach. Though the magician is not a grotesque like the ridiculously costumed old man, he too offers illusion.


In a novel about the push and pull of fantasy vs. reality, what a brilliant ploy it is to create a scene with a performer whose job it is to blur the boundaries. The magician truly makes things disappear; I was as mesmerized as the characters.  His artistry has even Helen duped.  In the end, the performance accomplishes a very great feat: It shifts me, the reader, from a black and white, victim and oppressor vision to an acceptance of our basic human hunger for illusion.  In a sense, what the magician also disappears is the sharpness of Helen's judgment, the didacticism that was a wedge between the two friends. They become equals, both believers, spellbound by the magician's seductive act.
Garner, Helen. The Spare Room. New York: Picador, 2008.