Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Spare Room - Helen Garner

'When a person dies',she said, ' little bit of them flies away from their body'
'Yes' , I said.'I've heard people say that.What a beautiful
'It's called a soul'

Nicola comes to Melbourne from Sydney, to undergo a special treatment at Theodore Institute for Cancer. The treatment , mainly consists of Vitamin C injections on alternate days and Ozone therapy on the other. Helen, the narrator, an old time friend of Nicola, has to accommodate her for the period of treatment. The novel starts with Helen preparing her spare room for the visitor, with a quote from from the Australian novelist Elizabeth Jolley, : "It is a privilege to prepare the place where someone else will sleep."

Theodore Institute , practices alternate medicine and the initial interaction makes Helen doubtful of their intentions. The sick, however is in good spirit and believes ( to make others believe that she believe) in them and boast to recover in two weeks time. As the days progressed, it becomes difficult for Helen. She becomes restless, gets angry and helpless straining the sacred part time nursing job. All this does not stop her from nursing the sick, taking care of her, washing her clothes and cooking for her. Her personal life also goes out of gear, shutting door to her grand children living next door hardly able to sleep, unable to complete her other usual jobs.
You're angry and scared," Helen shouts at Nicola. "But you won't admit it. You want to keep up this masquerade.... I'm sick with it. I can't breathe."
Nicola on her part does not make it easy either. She is on a different war, mocking at the face of death, with her optimism. She can't loose hope and succumb to the pain, however unbearable the treatments are. Each day she returns back after the Vitamin C injections, barely able to stand, but insists on continuing until the end of three weeks. A single woman, with no family apart from a sister and her daughter as known relative, has to put up a brave front, for survival.

The relationship is becoming fragile for Helen as she is unable to continue, and fails to convince her friend on regular medicine or on a palliative care help. Unable to stand the suffering of her friend during the injection, she lodge an official complaint against the Theodore Institute, looses cool and shouts at the Doctor in the process. At one time, "I wanted to smash the car into a post, but for only her to die - I would leave the keys in the ignition, grab my backpack and run for my life."

At the end of three weeks, Nicole returns to Sydney, but this time to convinced to do the treatment at the regular institute, where they diagnosed the cancer affected her vertebrae , needing an emergency operation.
'I thought I was on the mountain top' she said in a voice that splintered. 'But I'm only in the foothills' .............'Death's at the end of this, isn't it'.
She continue to live for few more months, nursed by her relatives and friends , including Helen, before succumbs to the eventual death.

This is a book of love, friendship,compassion, despair, tiredness, frustration and suffering. It isn't easy to live with a terminally ill person. It calls for very strong character. Especially, if the person is not your blood relative and is not an easy person to handle.

Helen Garner writes the book from her own experience of nursing one of her friend ( Jenya Osborne ) when she was dying. While the general mood of the book is of pathos, the inner turmoil of anger, sympathy , helplessness etc are depicted honestly and convincingly. Nice, little book.
The Spare Room
Helen Garner
Canongate Books
195 Pages
Rs 424
Further Read : The Australian, NY Times , The Age

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