The Spare Room

I’ve been very lazy today and spent the whole morning and half the afternoon tucked under the doona reading another one of my library books from start to finish. The Spare Room is by one of Australia’s most respected authors, Helen Garner. I’ve actually read it before but when I saw its familiar cover on the shelf I  had the urge to read it again – there’s something about Helen Garner’s sparse, simple writing style that stays with you a long time after you’ve finished her books

Anyway, The Spare Room is about a woman in her sixites called Helen, who lives in Melbourne, who has an old friend of hers – Nicola – come to stay. What makes things interesting is that Nicola is in the last stages of terminal cancer, and has come to Melbourne to seek alternative treatment. I don’t want to reveal too much, just in case you want to read the book yourself some day, but basically it’s a story about dying, and how the dying and the people who love them deal with death.

It got me thinking about how we regard death in our culture – and by this I really mean Western culture. So many times in the news I read stories about people who are ‘fighting’ cancer and other illnesses, who will not allow themselves to be anything other than completely positive in the face of the pain and fear that they must be dealing with. On the one hand I admire this attitude. I know from personal experience that believing you can do something is almost always a prerequisite for actually doing it. But what happens when ‘believing’ and ‘achieving’ aren’t linked?  What if you just have a really bad form of cancer, and you’re going to die no matter how ‘positive’ you are? What if you got a bum deal in the genetic lottery and are born with a deteriorating condition like muscular dystrophy, or you got radiation poisoning because you chanced to live in Chernobyl or Fukiyama, or you’re 92 and your body is just plain worn out?

In The Spare Room, Nicola exhausts herself and everyone around her with her determinedly cheery attitude and belief that after a few weeks of some wacky treatments involving ozone saunas and vitamin C injections she’ll ‘have the damn thing on the run’. The scene where Nicola finally has to accept, with some tough love from those around her, that she is dying, gives the novel its compelling climax.

Dying, and the process of dying, is not something our culture likes to touch upon much. Sure, there’s death, a surfeit of it, in most Hollywood action movies, but I don’t mean violent, tough, warlike death. I mean the death that happens in real life, to real people – sometimes peaceful, sometimes painful, sometimes prolonged, sometimes all too fast. It’s the one thing all living things can be sure of. And we can fight it, and we can sometimes cheat it, but in the end, death always comes. I suspect, at that moment, that the only thing left to do is to accept it.

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