Saturday, October 22, 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

Reading group: The Spare Room by Helen Garner

Ann chose this book as she had watched a TV Review Show in which it received unusually unanimous praise. It is related in the first-person narrative voice of a character who shares the author's name - 'Hel' - and charts the period during which she has a friend to stay, she expects for just three weeks - Nicola, who is suffering from cancer and visiting a nearby alternative cancer clinic. As soon as Nicola arrives it is clear that she is a dying woman, and Hel ends up caring intensively for her and having to deal psychologically with Nicola's denial of the truth and of the quackery of the clinic and with the prospect of having Nicola to stay indefinitely and possibly to die.

So, Ann said, what did she think of it? The main thing she found in this book, she said, was a huge and searing anger, and there was a general nodding of agreement. She said she had found it very easy to read, and there was agreement here too: people put in that the prose had great energy which gave it, John noted, an amazingly light touch for such dark subject matter. Ann said, however, that she felt that the book was somehow too easy to read for the subject matter. I commented that I suspected that that was why it had been generally so well received: people tend not to want to confront painful issues, and a book that is easy to read keeps a certain distance from the pain, while leaving readers able to congratulate themselves that they have in fact confronted it. Ann said to agreement that the book was very vivid and that it had a very strong ring of autobiography. However, she had to say that she hadn't liked either of the two characters, Hel with her anger or Nicola with her imperiousness and denials and demands.

Now there was disagreement. Doug strongly disagreed about Nicola. She was a wonderful character, he thought: so characterful and strong in the face of her predicament, and wouldn't you, if you were suffering from a terminal illness, be tempted to deny it? Jo pointed out that when people are dying they are necessarily demanding. Trevor talked about his own denial when his mother was dying. I talked about my own experience of the stress of keeping up the fantasy for a dying person when they are in denial about it, and the focus of the discussion turned to Hel. People noted that the particular thing about Hel is that, eventually at any rate, she refuses to keep up the fantasy and works to force Nicola to face the reality.  I think this was felt by some to be what was unlikeable about her: her anger, and her consequent insistence on the truth, seemed to be as much on behalf of herself - tricked into looking after Nicola, already worn out and with the prospect of the situation going on indefinitely -  as on behalf of Nicola. I said, but doesn't this make the book a telling comment on a society where this kind of caring is left up to individuals (usually women) and it was agreed that that was so.

Up to this moment Jenny had said nothing and Clare asked her what she thought. She said she hadn't liked the book at all: she didn't like Hel's attitude as it came over in the narrative voice.

I said I felt that the problem was that there is a whiff of martyrdom, which I had particularly noticed in a passage near the beginning. Hel's daughter Eva lives next door and at the point that Nicola comes to stay Eva's whole family come down with bad colds so that they must stay away from Nicola with her depressed immune system, and therefore of course from Hel.  After cancelling her work for the day, taking Nicola to the clinic and returning and laundering Nicola's drenched bed linen, Hel sees the suffering Eva in the garden with her ill child lying listlessly over her shoulder:
I drove, I bought, I paid [It's that not being able to resist telling us that she paid]. I delivered to Eva's doorstep cardboard cartons overflowing [overflowing!] with organic foodstuffs [organic!]. She wouldn't even open the screen door till I had closed their front gate behind me.
It is true that Garner ends the section with self-irony: How competent I was! I would get a reputation for competence. In retrospect one can thus read the whole section as self-ironic, but in the first instance the paragraph doesn't strike like that, and I don't find the irony sustained. Everyone now agreed, especially Doug who thought strongly that there was indeed a whiff of martyrdom about the whole book. People had commented that it was odd that Eva doesn't once appear to help out although she lives next door. John said he felt that giving Eva and her family a cold so that she had to stay away and thus intensify Hel's aloneness with the situation seemed like a narrative device, which contributed to the air of narratorial /authorial martyrdom - especially as Eva still doesn't appear even when she and her family are free of the cold, which people in the group thought very strange indeed.

Jenny noted that on the whole, though, we kept talking about the characters rather than the book. I said I thought it was because there was no distinction between a narrative and an authorial voice, which in turn was an aspect of the probably autobiographical nature of the book. The narrative voice (to which Jenny objected) was both the voice of the character and the voice of the author. (There was now a brief objection to assumptions of autobiography until Clare, who had the hardback edition, read out a section of blurb which implied that the book was indeed based on the author's experience.) Someone said that it wasn't possible to make that distance in a first-person narrative, but someone else pointed out that you could do it with satire (a discussion I am sure we've had before!) and someone else said that if it were done with satire, though, that would take away the anger. I didn't say this at the time, but I'm not sure I agree with that last: satire is a very elegant way of communicating distilled anger. In fact in this book there are some fine moments of ironic commentary, but on the whole I feel the anger is raw, undistilled, and there was comment that perhaps the book was written too closely in time to the author's experience.

Jenny then did make a point of talking about the book as opposed to the characters. She said that it runs along the surface of the experience and doesn't really confront it. She compared it with Simone de Beauvoir's account of her mother's dying which really takes you into the heart of the pain of the experience. Clare said that when she has worked all day with people undergoing similar experiences (as she does), she doesn't want to go through it all again via a book, and she is very grateful to have a reading experience which gives her some distance from it all. Ironically, the conversation slid immediately back towards the characters: someone said, Hel did love Nicola, though, didn't she? but others said, But did she? Someone answered, Well, why else would she end up doing that for Nicola? Someone else said it was odd that she did: after all, others of Nicola's friends have known her for a lot longer than Hel. Someone else pointed out that Nicola only comes to stay because Hel lives near the clinic: she's simply using her. Jenny said, This is the point: we just can't tell.  Hel tells us she loves Nicola, but that's all. This was what Jenny meant by the book skipping over the surface: we are told things but they are never really proved in a way that convinces. Every so often there's a hint of something in the past that brought these two women to be in this situation together but they are never developed: we never find out. For this reason, Jenny felt there was a dishonesty at the heart of the book.

I said I thought the book was a commentary on the way that ex-hippy types like Hel and Nicola rejected in youth the notion of traditional family, and turned instead to friendship groups, but that the latter don't sustain you into the frailties of old age.

John said he found the symbolism at the start of the book (but soon abandoned) heavy-handed - the mirror that crashes and breaks in the spare room the night before Nicola arrives, the gourd which when cut into turns out to be empty, the overripe banana left lying around and which Nicola eventually eats - but others said they hadn't even noticed that these things were symbolic.

I said I liked the way that the end of the book leaps forward via hindsight to Nicola's care by others and death (I think that, formally, it highlights beautifully the intensity of the three weeks she is at Hel's house and the relief when she is gone), but everyone else hated that, and the way that structurally (and consequently emotionally) it dismissed Nicola, contributing to their suspicions of self-centredness in the narrative.

All in all, I'd say, at the end of the discussion people were more negative about the book than when we began.


Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here