22 December, 2008

'The Spare Room' - Helen Garner

A woman in her sixties welcomes a friend, Nicola, to her home. She prepares the spare room with fresh linen and flowers, and prepares herself for the challenge to come: Nicola is in the advanced stages of terminal cancer and has come to Melbourne for a three-week treatment of alternative medicine.

This is the story of Helen Garner's first work of fiction for fifteen years. Her years of measured, intricately researched non-fiction writing have not harmed her ability to tell a story. What they have done is refined her writing to a very pure, distilled style. All the substance is there - this is a book rampant with emotion and symbolism - but there isn't a single letter of frippery.

Within that reduced language there is still, however, a concern for detail. Falling rain is 'quiet' and 'kind'; an oil heater not only heats but also drips and clicks. In life, we rarely experience something singularly - we see it, hear it, feel it etc. When The Spare Room was published questions were asked about how fictional it actually is, since the main character's name is Helen and many aspects of her life match exactly with the author's. Those questions, however, are not important: what Garner has brought us is literature, not just fiction. It does closely reflect life, but not just hers: as in life, the reader experiences everything in the novel multiple ways.

Garner's key achievement is in the emphasis of her sympathy. This is not a book about a dying woman; it is a book about a dying woman's friend. What does that friend have to deal with? What does she go through in mind and body? What must she, the same age as her friend, think about her own mortality as she watches someone she loves in such pain and desparation? Nicola's end is known from the start. The reader is instead drawn to Helen and the questions of her emotional fate. Often, at the end of a chapter, we are given clues to Helen's responses as the narrative suddenly shifts from the action to focus on a colour, a movement, or other event unrelated to the main story.

So closely did I follow detail in this book, that I found myself affected even by the typeface. It is a gentle, ligatured serif, which leads the eye across the page but also retains a sparseness against the paper to reflect the language. Full stops are diamonds, not circles, and the subtle difference more sharply punctuates each purpose- and meaning-laden sentence.

It was rewarding, too, to have several Melbourne locations so shamelessly referenced. Garner treats Melbourne with the respect that Richard Flanagan showed Sydney in The Unknown Terrorist. It was an interesting contrast to Richard Ford's Lay of the Land, however, where his characterisation via east-coastisms was more off-putting.

This is an exceptional work of fiction, one to savour as one would cling to stolen time with a close friend.

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