For anyone who has had a loved one die of cancer, Helen Garner's The Spare Room is likely to be a painful read. Without knowing the background, I would guess that Garner must have witnessed the difficulties of dealing with a terminally ill person at first hand to have captured such a level of excruciating detail. This book is one of the few I have read which rings absolutely true, crisp and clear in every detail without unnecessary flourishes. Despite the weighty subject matter, it reads easily and it's only at the end that you realise what a small and perfect miracle of a book this is. Garner is truly a master of her craft.
The premise of the book is simple. Helen's friend Nicola, in the final stages of cancer, comes down from Sydney to stay in her spare room while receiving treatment. As so many do, Nicola pins her hopes on alternative therapies and refuses to admit that she is dying. Helen's desire to help her friend is gradually worn down by Nicola's desperate neediness. It's a dilemma familiar to anyone with a seriously ill family member or friend - how to cope when your own needs conflict with the needs of the ill person, and how to deal with the guilt of taking time for yourself.
There's little I can say about this gem of a book, no criticism or suggested improvements. In my view it's a modern classic and deserves to be better known. I do believe that seeing your experience depicted in fiction can be healing and it says something about the quality of this book that I would recommend it to those who have dealt with a terminally ill friend or family member. Perhaps not at the time, or immediately afterwards, but down the track when wounds are not so fresh it can be immensely comforting to know you are not alone. In the end, all any of us can do is our best, even if we tend to expect more of ourselves. This is the heart of the story told so quietly and powerfully in this stunning book.