Friend in Need


Helen Garner’s novel The Spare Room (House of Anansi) opens in Melbourne as the protagonist and narrator, a middle-aged woman also named Helen (hmm), prepares for the visit of Nicola, her dear friend. Nicola has late-stage cancer and is to stay with Helen for three weeks while undergoing a last-ditch alternative treatment. At the airport Helen is shocked to see how depleted her friend is. But that’s nothing compared to her horror upon seeing the “clinic,” with its “scene of disorder, as of a recent arrival or imminent flight,” its scatty personnel and its air of reverence toward intravenous vitamins, ozone, cables, tents and other apparatus that screams of full-on quackery to Helen. Nicola, who has much more to lose, is all bravado and breeziness, saying that her apparent pain and DTs are really “the vitamin C driving out the toxins.” Helen wants very much to call the palliative care people; Nicola refuses because “it’s the last thing before death”; Helen struggles hard to support Nicola on her terms. Finally Nicola says, “I need you to believe in [the treatment],” and Helen writes, “Now I took my first real breath of it, the sick air of falsehood.” But the nights are hard, and Nicola does accept a morphine prescription. One morning they go to tea at a friend’s house and Nicola leaps out of the car and charges in, “grinning wildly” in a “tremendous performance of being alive,” setting Helen’s teeth on edge. Out in the garden, as Nicola prattles on gaily about how well her treatments are working, Helen—who gets Nicola and herself through the terrible nights—picks up the secateurs and goes after the wilting blooms like Mommie Dearest in the rose garden. Does one laugh or cry upon reading this scene, remembering one’s own shameful irritation with loved ones who have refused to accept the inevitable, or have caved much too easily? “I had always thought that sorrow was the most exhausting of the emotions,” Helen writes. “Now I knew that it was anger.”

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Mary Schendlinger is a writer, editor, retired teacher of publishing and, as Eve Corbel, a maker of comics. She was Senior Editor of Geist for twenty-five years. She lives in Vancouver.


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