Some years ago one of my closest friends died of cancer after following the almost obligatory path of credit card seeking hokum that masquerades as 'alternative' treatment to its inevitable sad conclusion. What is it about cancer? I have asked myself that question a thousand times since Yvonne's reluctant passing. She raged and refused, as many cancer patients do, and went feeling that had she only tried a little harder, she might have beaten the bastard disease. I have always wanted to write about this ugly battle and my far from heroic response to it but have never been able to summon the internal fortitude to do so. It's a complex business watching someone singled out to die in this arbitrary fashion. Cancer compels the sufferer to fight it and the sufferer's nearest and dearest to support her forays to the Yorkshire Dales to consult faith healers whose waiting list is almost as long as their charge sheet for fraud and make fast friends with belly dance instructors who have invested in ozone boxes.
Helen Garner made the decision to present The Spare Room, her account of dealing with the mad scramble to evade death by one of her closest friends, as a fiction. The ruse is thin enough to leave us in no doubt that the bones of the truth are there, but provides that all important legal protection in case the featured snake oil vendor decides to call his bent lawyer and have his day in court. She writes in the first person, calling her narrator Helen. Helen prepares her spare room for a three week visit by Nicola while she attends the sinister Theodore Institute for some intense quackery by confidently stockpiling Manchester and draping the room with greenery,
'...straightforward tasks of love and order that I could perform with ease'
Within a week, she realises she is well out of her depth and unable to support her friend by equalling her faith in the insanely chaotic and incompetent Theodore Institute. The conflict is palpable and Garner explores it fearlessly. Cancer is different from other illnesses in that the success of the cure seems almost defined by the strength of will and faith a sufferer is prepared and able to contribute. It's like the bubonic plague where the power of prayer was considered as potent a factor in the cure as an effective lancing of the poisonous buboes. Garner examines this curious quasi-religiosity skillfully, even sensitively. She accepts Nicola is a person who 'believes in things' and does make an attempt to keep good faith with her friend, at least in the beginning.
The sparse, brittle prose of this novel, Garner's first for fifteen years, is the perfect cloth from which to cut this story. The language is often as threadbare as Nicola's old, worn and woefully inadequate clothing. In interviews, Garner said she kept chopping it back, until there were only thirty-six thousand naked words remaining. There's a lovely metaphor in the book where Helen attacks a climbing rose when Nicola's 'tremendous performance of being alive [scrapes] on [her] nerves.' The belief, the pretense, life itself all melt into farce as Nicola grabs at it like a hungry anorexic. In a wonderfully touching scene, Helen takes Nicola to see a magic show she has agreed to review. The conjurer is superb, performing a highly symbolic rope trick completely convincingly. Briefly the pair bond over what is superficially a shared experience. On the way home, Helen raves about the illusionist's skill and is annoyed when Nicola chooses to latch instead onto a tenuous thread to validate her belief system. The magician tells her 'there are many ways to make a thing disappear' which Nicola reads as an affirmation of her treatment. Helen responds by wishing she could crash the car and only Nicola would die.
At the centre of Nicola's belief that the cruel massive doses of Vitamin C and organic coffee enemas that she endures are 'driving out' her cancer, is a Pascal style wager,
'I have to trust them. I don't have a choice. I've got to keep myself revved up and directed and purposeful.'
This is the fatal error in logic that has spawned an entire industry of 'alternative' therapies and I think women are particularly vulnerable to it. It is all too easy to convince a woman that there is still work to do to deserve a place on the planet. Yvonne had breast cancer. More than any other type, cancer of the breast seems to strip a woman of her identity. Yvonne cast this metaphor in concrete, much like Nicola does at the end of The Spare Room by denying the validity of her life, expressing to me often how 'pointless' she considered it. I believe this self-evaluation stemmed partly from the impotence she felt at not being able to fix herself. She felt she'd failed, and not just in the mission she'd undertaken to get well, but in everything. Unable to bring herself to question the competency of the treatments and practitioners in whom she placed her faith, she had no choice but to take the blame for not believing enough. Before she died, she stripped her house of any evidence that her life had meaning or connected with anyone else's. She burned all her personal papers and letters and left only pictures of her childhood and youth. Her whole house was like a spare room, a room belonging to no one.
This is a courageous book and one I'm very glad I read. When my friend was dying, I was confronted by some nasty things about myself that I now find a lot easier to face because I know I'm not the only one who was not selflessly supportive and unconditionally loving until the bitter end. There were times when I was bored rigid by the whole business and I thought the woman with the ozone box was odious and I absolutely detested her other best friend with whom I was made joint executor of Yvonne's estate and the lawyers were vile and her elderly mother was all too often a candidate for strangulation. It was an awful time. But I'm not sorry I experienced this death. I was with Yvonne when she died and I am willing to admit that at the moment of her death, I felt tremendously empowered. I felt alive and full of healthy, vital cells. I wonder if I'd have felt that way if she'd died of heart failure.