Writers Reading

The Spare Room by Helen Garner

The Text Publishing Company: Melbourne, Australia, 2008. English edition Canongate, 2008

There's a story behind the moment when I first read this book. I was teaching a Fiction course at Ty Newydd, the Welsh Writers' House, and we were discussing beginnings, when my co-tutor produced, as an example, the opening of a book I had never heard of: The Spare Room, by Helen Garner (Canongate, 2008). I peered at my colleague's copy while she explained the slippery genre of domestic fiction, and its insidious connection to the marketing category of 'women's interest fiction'. No wonder I had never read it. Here was a yellow cover with a spatter of clichéd glitter and the vague blur of a young woman's slender body with her head chopped off. Images of women with missing body parts, or disembodied feet, have formed the staple menu for commercial covers on lightweight fiction aimed at women over the past two decades. I can never work out what I despise most: the content of these awful books or the publishers' patronising marketing methods.

I read the first page and hastily began revising my opinions. Helen Garner is a well-known Australian writer, and if I hadn't heard of The Spare Room I had certainly heard of her, and of one of her earlier autobiographical novels, Monkey Grip (1977). Garner's quiet authority asserts itself in the first paragraph

First, in my spare room, I swivelled the bed on to a north-south axis. Isn't that supposed to align the sleeper with the planet's positive energy flow, or something? She would think so. I made it up nicely with a fresh fitted sheet, the pale pink one, since she had a famous feel for colour, and pink is flattering even to skin that has turned yellowish (p.1).

The contract with the reader, and the dynamic between the two main characters, has been set up. Garner's narrator, Hel, suggestively named after her creator, is preparing to receive Nicola, a close, if not very old friend. Nicola has terminal bowel cancer and has abandoned conventional medicine, which cannot, in any case, do any more for her, in favour of alternative treatments delivered by quacks and charlatans, anxious to fleece her of as much cash as possible before she dies. Nicola is buying hope, when there is no hope.

And here is the central argument of this short novella. Nothing but death waits for Nicola. Death is already inside her body, consuming her from within. How is she to die: fighting right up to her last breath, deluded and in denial of her inevitable fate, convinced that she will soon regain her health and have the 'cancer on the run', or stoically resigned to suffering and dissolution? And how much should she demand from the women who care for her? The narrative covers the three weeks of Nicola's terrifying visit to Hel in Melbourne to follow a treatment based on ozone saunas and intravenous Vitamin C transfusions. Garner dramatises a power-struggle between the two women played out in domestic space; the house that belongs to one woman, and is invaded and disrupted by the other. Death accompanies the sick woman, and enters the house, banishing everything else: the narrator's vibrant young grandchildren, light, joy, and most appallingly of all, truth. Nicola refuses to go down quietly. Her fixed bright smile becomes a grinning rictus; she needs to believe in the Vitamin C treatment administered at the grim, decayed premises of the Theodore Institute, which reduces her to a urine-soaked, sweating wreck, night after night. Hel picks up the disgusting pieces.

What is at stake in this tale is nothing so simple as friendship or goodness, but the appalling final questions: how should we face our own deaths? What have our lives been worth in the glare of an agonising, messy, vile destruction of the body, and probably also the soul, the loss of all that we are and have ever been?

Garner's book is set in the suburbs of Melbourne. The cast of characters involves a circle of women friends and the doctors, both the no-nonsense truth-tellers and the evil quacks. The scale is deliberately reduced and condensed. This is indeed domestic women's fiction, but the questions addressed could not have greater metaphysical dimensions. What then, is domestic fiction?

Contemporary domestic fiction usually describes women's lives and interior spaces. The settings are often ordinary suburban communities or modest rural worlds. The stories centre on families and intimate relationships: tales of desire and disappointment, being forced to start again, buried secrets, hidden identities, myths of origins, sensible sacrifices, learning how to compromise, and happy endings. Never underestimate the power of a happy ending! The long lost son comes home. Her business is eventually a success and well worth the struggle. The husband who left her for a younger woman wasn't worth keeping after all. She finally learns to cope with the baby. The man she loves adores her in return. She finds out who her mother really was, and realises that she can be proud of her lost heritage. She finally writes her book. These are the various possible conclusions of comfort-zone reading. Fantasy certainly, but consoling fantasy precisely and patronisingly aimed at women readers.

For women do indeed consume these books, millions of copies, every year, and in the desperate search for sales, male writers are getting in on the act. A classic recent example of quiet domestic fiction written by a man with a woman as the central protagonist is Colm Tóibín's novel Brooklyn (Picador, 2009), which won the Costa Novel Prize and was Booker long-listed. Tóibín is justly celebrated as the author of The Blackwater Lightship (1999, shortlisted for the Booker Prize) and of The Master (2004, also short-listed for the Booker Prize), a novel based on the life of Henry James. But Brooklyn doesn't deal with anything so important as literary ambition and the lonely intellectual life of a closet homosexual. Here is the plot: an Irish girl decides, under family pressure, to emigrate to America, where she lives quietly, sells stockings, picks up an implausibly lovely Italian boyfriend, feels alienated and returns to Ireland. This dreadful tale of a completely passive, slightly underhand, cowardly young girl, a novel which would have been utterly ignored by the British literary world had it been written by a woman, was Booker long-listed, and left off the short list to a wave of journalistic indignation, simply because it was written by Colm Tóibín. And presumably, Brooklyn was read by men who never read the women's novels that it so closely resembles.

But domestic space, or any intimate, shared interior, is also where horror reigns, the place where murder and catastrophe occur. Ever since Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon in the bath, the home has proved itself to be a treacherous place, the location of sexual abuse and the casual slaughter of people and animals. Who can forget Hareton Earnshaw hanging a litter of puppies from the back of the settle in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1848)? Excellent domestic fiction thrives on claustrophobic settings, siege narratives, evil conspiracies, hidden crimes and every possible form of violence. This list suggests action and events rather than ideas, which is why Garner's novel of metaphysical debate is so striking.

The argument between the two women is embodied in their anger, their aggression and their reactions to each other's bullying rage. The representation of this struggle is all the more powerful in the opening sections of the novella because the writer doesn't dramatise the battle in the dialogue. In the following scene the two women visit another friend:

We drove to Fitzroy. When Peggy, chic and smooth-haired, opened her front door, Nicola leapt through it and straight into the kitchen, grinning wildly, spraying compliments and exclamations in her poshest accent: it was a tremendous performance of being alive. It scraped on my nerves. A bowl of walnuts stood on the sideboard. I grabbed a couple and cracked them in my palms. I ate the first few kernels, but the cracking was so gratifying that after I had eaten enough I kept going, trying to find each nut’s weak point, grinding the hard shells against each other till they split (p. 85).

The narrator's aggression is signalled in the verbs: scraped, grabbed, cracked, split. The walnuts become Nicola's insistence on survival, her iron denial of her approaching death. This metaphor of belligerent destruction is endorsed in the next few pages when Nicola outlines her treatments, minimizing the horror, and Hel attacks the dead roses on Peggy's patio.

Garner gives us a masterclass in first-person narrative. How does she manage to give both sides of an argument while using relatively little direct debate and keeping the narrative firmly within a single perspective? This is the most intriguing technical achievement in this fiction. Nicola's selfish behaviour is indeed monstrous. She imposes her punitive regime of self-immolation by fraudulent cancer treatment on her hapless hostess, and insists that her friend should connive in the delusion that she will recover her health. Hel thus becomes the death's head itself when she insists on morphine tablets and palliative care. Why indeed should we accept death's steady approach? Why should we cease to fight, just because our refusal to go gentle into that goodnight is inconvenient and alienating to those close to us? Nicola is indeed insupportable, with her monstrous grin and selfish neediness, but equally alarming is Hel's self-righteous condemnation of her friend’s denial and her implied conviction that she would die more nobly and with measured courage. None of us can know how we would behave, facing a slow and agonising death. Many of us will live to find out.

Hel seeks advice from an organisation called Mercy palliative care. The nurse, Carmel, brings her experience of the dying to the table.

'It's just that in my work,' said Carmel, 'I've learnt that there are people who never, ever face the fact that death's coming to them. They go on fighting right up to their last breath.' She paused. 'And it is one way of doing it.'

Again the vast weakness sifted through me. I saw that I had been working towards a glorious moment of enlightenment, when Nicola would lay down her manic defences; when she would look around her, take a deep breath, and say, 'All right. I'm going to die. I bow to it. Now I will live the rest of my life in truth' (pp.94-95).

The qualifying voices that challenge Hel's position are thus given their due. They speak for Nicola. Hel’s rage against the smiling rictus on her friend's face reveals another message in the book: the narrator is confronting not only her friend's death, but also her own. And this is quietly stated, with great humility at the end of the novel. Every death is also our own death.

...I would have to help carry her to the lavatory, where I learned to wash her arse as gently as I had washed my sister's and my mother's, and as some day someone will have to wash mine (pp. 190-191).

I read this short novel twice during the summer of 2012. Why hasn't this extraordinary book been short-listed for every prize going? I wasn't the only indignant person asking that question. Canongate's publisher, Jamie Byng let out a screech of rage against the Booker machine when The Spare Room wasn't even long-listed in 2008. But how, in the present commercial market, could a book like this find its readers? And who are those readers? The appalling chic-lit cover clearly targets the women's interest market. Contemporary commercial women's fiction aims to be comforting, reassuring. The shadows are usually acknowledged, but banished. Dangers are overcome, losses are restored. Domestic fiction that speaks the truth, the unbearable truth, like death itself, is not welcome at the feast. I cannot recommend the scorching lucidity of Garner's The Spare Room to weak-minded or faint-hearted readers. You will need theological nerves of granite to think through the implications of this terrifying novel.

Text copyright Patricia Duncker. May not be reproduced without permission. 

All Rights Reserved. Patricia Duncker 2024