Helen Garner said, in 1985, that writing novels was like "trying to
make a patchwork quilt look seamless. A novel is made up of scraps of
our own lives and bits of other people's, and things we think of in the
middle of the night and whole notebooks full of randomly collected
I found that on Wikipaedia and also the information that Helen Garner wrote The Spare Room after the death of a friend from cancer.
I had wondered.
Not only because the main character is called Helen, but also because I think this book would be tough to write so astutely and therefore so well if you didn't know the real nitty gritty nuts and bolts of looking after someone who is so desperately ill.
Night after night Helen is changing sheets and living with the fear of having to comfort someone through uncontrolled pain, that is real fear. Uncontrolled pain is terrifying for all concerned and descent into that whirlpool of chaos is inevitable when it happens in those darkest hours just before dawn. Helen paces herself to cope with it for the three weeks of Nicola's visit and not a minute longer.
Nicola meanwhile resides in a strangely complex reverie of denial patched up with the hope of a complete recovery even whilst she suffers the most agonising side-effects of her expensive and very alternative treatment. All in a seemingly valiant attempt to exclude any glimmer of the truth from herself whilst, unable to buy into Nicola's optimism, it is all staring Helen in the face. The reality of Nicola's reasoning, when finally revealed, is quietly and heartbreakingly sad.
Susan Hill suggested I read this one and also told me to look carefully at the very clever ending, which I did and yes, how very clever it is. I won't divulge because then you can watch out for it too, it's more about style than plot but such a clever way for a writer to preserve for posterity a moment of utter guilt, trapped like the insect in the amber. Regardless of what may happen next, nothing will assuage Helen's agony over her decision, one that tests her innermost feelings about the bonds of friendship to the very limits and Helen Garner has captured it with utter precision.
Now last year you may recall Susan and I were poles apart on our Booker favourites, Winnie & Wolfe was getting her vote very early on, my flag was nailed firmly to the Darkmans mast, but this year I can report we are of once accord, we even agree about the cover and that's before the long list has even been announced.
Surely The Spare Room will be on there?
How can it not be?
We'll be out of our misery tomorrow and my final longlist predictions will be on here first thing. Suddenly I'm aware of how many books I should have made time to read and haven't, it's been a very busy last-minute reading weekend.