30 September 2009

The Spare Room (Helen Garner)

I apologise for having promised this review for a few days now and not delivered. I am generally of the opinion that if you promise to do something enough times people will assume you have actually done it. Unfortunately, on a blog where the evidence of having posted a review is the physical manifestation of said review things get a bit trickier. Thus I have had to bite the bullet and write the bloody thing.

Why am I dragging my feet on this review?

Because I KNOW it's brilliant. Garner is a superb writer and her prose seems effortless, organic even. I imagine Helen wafting around her house, putting on the kettle, writing a few sentences, drifting into the garden and weeding for a bit, writing a few more sentences as she passes by her typewriter to make lunch, calling a friend and mindlessly jotting down ideas on a pad of paper next to the phone... almost as if it comes so naturally to her that she needn't interrupt her life to write.

The Spare Room is about a woman named Helen (an extremely subtle hint that this is not really fiction) who has a friend come to stay for three weeks whilst she undergoes cancer treatment at an alternative therapy place in Melbourne. Helen, pragmatic and sensible, is unable to understand why her friend Nicola will not accept the fact that she is dying and instead insists upon putting her body through brutal coffee enemas and vitamin C injections.

Hideous, gut-wrenching stuff and the novel is short, to pack that much more of a punch. Helen's frustration reads as a diary entry, inviting the reader to experience everything as vividly as if they too were in the room. I was going to call the reader the 'voyeur' and then I looked the word up to work out how to use it properly as a non-continuous verb and realised that the most common definition for 'voyeur' is someone who gets sexual pleasure from watching people having sex from a secret vantage point! Am I the only one who didn't know that?

This honesty and generosity relates to what Martin Amis said recently in Spain when talking about ageing writers: "... worst of all are the novelists who have fallen out of love with the reader.... You present yourself at your most alive; you want to give the reader the seat nearest the fire, the best wine and food." Garner is definitely still placing her readers in uncomfortably warm seats.

So then why, you ask, was I so reluctant to write this review?

Because I STILL didn't like the book. As a comment on the human condition it was insightful and moving. I'll admit that I did feel a connection to Helen- I too can get extremely frustrated with people who don't do things the right way (my way). But I put down the book knowing that I would never again feel the need to revisit it and that's my mark of a REALLY good book- how much I'm looking forward to picking it up again.

Rating: 8/10.
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