I have a hardcover edition of The Spare Room. I think it’s important to have the hardcover. Like Julian Barnes’ The Sense Of An Ending, The Spare Room is less than 200 pages. I would feel that the novel in paperback would diminish the story somehow; that it was a slight of a book – and it is not.
Helen hosts a friend, Nicola, for three weeks at her place. Nicola is in Melbourne for cancer treatment. Helen is her friend’s nurse for that time but she begins to question the treatment Nicola insists on receiving. And that’s only the beginning. It seems that Nicola is in denial and it leaves a trail of destruction, with friends and family that care for her, entangled in the mess:
She’s cast us as the carriers of all the bad stuff – and somehow we’ve let her. She sails about with that ghastly smile on her face, telling everyone she’s going to be better by the middle of next week, and meanwhile we’re trawling along the bottom picking up all the anguish and rage that she’s thrown overboard.
The book is deceptive. Garner makes it look very easy, this writing business. I admit, early on, maybe in the first 30 pages, I felt a little disconnected from the story. I questioned whether I thought this story was worth knowing about. But at some point, I was transported. It is so intimate, so claustrophobic. I felt I was in the house with Helen and Nicola, in the spare room. Garner’s humour is dry and sharp; the perfect kind of humour for this story.
There are scatterings of quiet moments, of awkwardness, of sadness, of resignation. It’s the stuff that happens in this silence where the novel comes alive. I think that is why The Spare Room is not very long. Garner can say a great deal in the white space, between the words.