The Spare Room, Helen Garner

This novel is a small masterpiece. It opens with Helen preparing her spare room for an expected visitor, her friend Nicola who is coming to Melbourne for a three-week course of treatment for her cancer. Sounds grim, but there are humorous notes even on the first page as we learn that Nicola will care about the feng shui aspects of the room. In fact, Nicola doesn't believe in traditional medicine but instead puts her faith in Chinese herbs and magnetism and just about any other alternative treatment she can find. She gaily assures Helen that her cancer will be completely cured by the end of the three weeks.

The more rational Helen tries to go along with her friend's whims, but is shocked by how debilitated Nicola is, how much worse her condition is than described. Much of the push-pull of the story involves Helen fluctuating between respecting her friend's independence and wanting to knock some sense into her.

In addition to Nicola's life, Helen's own sense of herself is at stake. She thinks of herself as a good friend, as someone who is good in an emergency—qualities that are put to the test by Nicola's worsening condition. I think of myself as a good friend to have but can't imagine there are many people I'd be willing to care for as Helen does: up most of the night repeatedly changing the sheets and Nicola's nightgown, biting her tongue as Nicola swears that the pain is just the toxins working their way out. In the meantime, Helen has set her own life aside, including her writing and her relationship with her grandchildren who live next door.

How much do we owe each other? What of ourselves should we give up for others? I have always been clear that, for me at least, there is no limit to what I would give up for my children. There was a limit, however, to what I was willing to give up for my elderly parents, to what I was willing to do for them. Mind you, it was pretty far out there: the boundary was that I would not quit my job and move in with them to be a full-time caregiver and companion. However, if their circumstances had been different, if they hadn't been well able to afford the alternatives which were in fact much more effective for their situations, I might have decided differently. I see many of my friends struggling to define these boundaries now.

And that's family. What about friends? I was comforted and delighted when a community came together to help a friend with early-onset Alzheimer's who had no family besides a distant sister.

There is little rumination in this book; events move too fast for that. Scene follows scene, laughter mixed with fear, annoyance mixed with affection. It's a remarkable story that will make you think about your own place in the world and your own loved ones.

How much of your life would you give up to help a friend?

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