I’m really excited to talk about this Helen Garner novel, The Spare Room, but first, let’s talk about how I came to be reading it. I was traveling with my best friend and her parents, which is the sort of thing you usually do in high school with people whose parents can afford to go nice places and yours can’t, so they bring you along, and you feel grateful and awkward and young, but this wasn’t like that, this was another kind of thing, which is when you and your best friend are really genuinely fond of your respective parents and welcome the opportunity to be with them as adults.
We were driving around, and my best friend’s family is Australian, while I am Canadian, so you can imagine the elaborate system of unnecessary apologies and “please, it’s my turn to take the middle seat,” “are you comfortable? yes! I’m quite comfortable” Commonwealth twitterings we engaged in, and the entire experience was lovely, and then we fell into talking about books. We were talking first about Paul Theroux, the travel writer who wrote my favourite super-weird book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, about how he and V.S. Naipaul used to be besties, and then had a Falling-Out as a result of (among literally a thousand dishily-discussed things) Theroux finding all the books he’d written and then personally inscribed for Naipaul for sale in a London shop. It is seriously a book-length bitch session, and I could not love it more. I think I’ve mentioned this somewhere before, but I actually ran into two OTHER friends of Naipaul, who were, no joke, the “best friends from childhood” that Vanessa Bayer and Fred Armisen play on SNL, and asked them within four seconds of being introduced if they had read Sir Vidia’s Shadow, and they said: “Oh, of COURSE. We all have! Thousands of times! But we tell him we haven’t, and we hide it when he comes over.”
V.S. Naipaul: your friends are reading Paul Theroux’s book about you behind your back.
Anyway, we were talking about Theroux because he happens to be JUSTIN THEROUX’S UNCLE, as in the future Mr. Jennifer Aniston, and I immediately began composing “Small Talk Between Paul Theroux and Jennifer Aniston on Her Wedding Day,” which you’ll read in these pages should they ever get around to closing that deal, and then the conversation turned to Helen Garner. Whew. Aren’t you glad you waited for that?
My best friend and her mother told me that Helen Garner is an Australian who writes these clear, short, fabulous novels, as well as occasionally problematic works of non-fiction, and I immediately needed to read The Spare Room and Monkey Grip. So, of course, I did, because finding a brilliant female novelist you haven’t heard of is a joyous occasion. Perhaps I can spark such a moment for you? Try Mary Wesley (see below.)
Guys, The Spare Room is an incredible novel. It’s the story of a woman whose friend comes to stay with her while undergoing cancer treatment, and the ensuing chaos. Female friendship, illness, alternative medicine gone awry, passivity, anger, grief. It also seemed very Canadian to me, which happens a lot with Australian novels (wait, have you read My Brilliant Career? a complete must for all bluestockings), in this case because the literature of illness in a nation with universal health care is profoundly, profoundly different. Not less grave, of course, but more cerebral and physical, with less of the financial horrorshow of, say, Michael Greenberg’s Hurry Down Sunshine, in which the scariest moment of the book is when Greenberg tells us that he and his wife were between health insurance plans and their daughter’s INPATIENT STAY would be completely out-of-pocket.
But The Spare Room is quite chilling and beautifully written. “Clear” is absolutely the best word for Garner’s prose style. I cannot speak to her non-fiction, but her novels are exact and distinct and free of wobble, and utterly worth your time.
Okay, don’t forget to buy some Mary Wesley. Not only is she a genius, she didn’t write her first novel for grown-ups until she was 71 years old. Look how much time you have left to be brilliant! See you next week.
Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career (Indiebound | Amazon)
Helen Garner, Monkey Grip (Indiebound | Amazon)
Helen Garner, The Spare Room (Indiebound | Amazon)
Michael Greenberg, Hurry Down Sunshine (Indiebound | Amazon)
Paul Theroux, Sir Vidia’s Shadow (Indiebound | Amazon)
Mary Wesley, The Camomile Lawn (Goodreads | Amazon)
Nicole is an Editor of The Toast.