Helen Garner is a polarizing figure in her native Australia, where her take-no-prisoners non-fiction makes uneasy those who think there must be two sides (at least) to every story. But moral outrage, even actual rage, is no bad thing in a novelist, and Garner’s taut, angry and loving little novel, The Spare Room, about a grandmother putting up a dying friend who’s come to Melbourne for last-ditch “alternative” cancer treatment, is very good indeed. There’s a lot of real life behind this novel: the caretaker friend is named Helen; she lives, as Garner does, beside her daughter, with a break in the fence for grandchildren to pass through; and the dying Nicola is based on a late friend of Garner. Character Helen has a hard time dealing with the sweat, stench and sheer physicality of death, and a harder time dealing with the peddlers of false hope. So did novelist Helen, as she told one Australian interviewer: “I was shocked by how much anger there is. I had an urge to own those feelings. I didn’t make them up. While I was writing The Spare Room I thought, ‘I’m going to look really bad in this book, there’s no redeeming this kind of awful, ugly emotion’, and I thought, ‘I’m not going to change it. I’ll call the character Helen and admit to those feelings.’ I think this is a reason why people write. They want to put a piece of them out there and see if it can be embraced.” The answer, in a story as honest and well-written as this, is an emphatic yes.
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