Top positive review
Reviewed in the United States on September 1, 2015
This is the story of two women in their sixties. Helen, the narrator, is thriving, with work, family, and a nice homelife. Nicola, her friend, is a charismatic narcissist who is dying. In her manic efforts to thwart death with every crackpot “cure” available, Nicola becomes a black hole who sucks out the energy of everyone who loves her. This book is a chronicle of that journey.
The good: The book is well-paced and interesting. Garner is a talented writer, and she describes beautifully the reality of caregiving. Here are some examples:
“We led (Nicola) into the spare room and she sat shivering on the edge of the bed. I banged down the window and switched on the oil heater. No, thank you—she didn’t want to drink, or eat, or wash, or go to the toilet. She was silent. Her head hung forward, as if a tiny fascinating scene were being enacted on her lap.”
Bessie, age five, who is denied attention due to Nicola’s needs, “...hesitated, glaring at me over her shoulder, long enough for me to see her pearly skin, the vital luster of her pouting lower lip.”
Description of a quack clinic: “The room within was painted a strange yellow, the color of controlled panic.”
At the realization she’d have no choice but to offer up the next few weeks to continuing Nicola’s care: “My heart was full of holes. Everything strong and purposeful was draining out of me. When my coffee came I could hardly lift the cup. I drove home. My desk was buried under sliding heaps of unread and unanswered mail. I had lost control of my life.”
I also enjoyed the vernacular of urban Australia. The story is set largely in Melbourne, and their everyday language is different from what I'm used to. That added another layer of interest.
The not-so-great: this is a chronicle of a debilitating and wondrous period in the author’s life. It’s really interesting to the reader, like driving past a wreck, but I like to see character growth. In that sense, the ending was a bit unsatisfying. Helen and all the other caregivers continue sacrificing themselves for Nicola right up until the last page. No changes.
However, the story contained two powerful reminders. One, to appreciate my life, in spite of the fact that I can no longer leap tall buildings. Spare Room imparts gratitude for the joy of relative health and independence. Two, to do everything in my power NOT to let caregiving mow me down, the next time I’m in that situation. So thanks to Helen Garner for sharing her story with us. I recommend this book.