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The Spare Room 

Helen Garner (Anansi)

In this novel of 195 pages (a novella?), the Australian author brings readers into a confined, uncomfortable space: a 15-year friendship between the characters Helen and Nicola at the moment of a great test: Nicola, gravely ill with cancer, arrives in Melbourne from Sydney, seeking a final and alternative treatment. Helen, her host, doubts the therapy. Nicola believes. Both have to arrive at acceptance of the other’s outlook and way of going about life and death. Yes, friendship is one of those universals, but few writers write about its limits, how they’re recognized and negotiated with honesty and compassion. This ain’t no self-help book thinly veiled as fiction. A journalist and an emotional pugilist, Helen observes her friend, at one point recalling: “Then in recent years, shortly before she became ill, Buddhist terms had entered her discourse. She knew how to pronounce rinpoche and where to get a ticket when the famous ones were coming to town.” Zing and a ho-ho, that’s a powerful narrative voice! Garner evokes her city of Melbourne (traffic, transit, weather, natural and built landscape, culture, economy, healthcare) without breaking the stride set by her simply constructed sentences and streamlined story structure in manner of an Ian McEwan.

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