When I first started reading The Spare Room I couldn’t really understand the character Helen’s anger with her friend Nicola’s decision to pursue a course of alternative therapy for her cancer. To my mind, if someone wants to pursue a mode of therapy that doesn’t have scientific validity, then that’s their choice to invest their hope and money, no matter how futile the prospects. It seemed like nothing more than a question of egotism and control on Helen’s part as she railed against Nicola’s considerable suffering throughout her treatment. After all, the Theodor Institute’s regime of Vitamin C injections, ozone immersion, and cupping were not Nicola’s first attempt to stop the spread of her disease; she had undertaken Western, scientifically valid treatments until her doctors had told her they could do no more but manage her pain. As the story unfolded, however, I began to see what an enormous burden Nicola had placed on Helen, as well as members of her family, by asking them to support her suffering unconditionally.
I found this question, of a patient’s responsibility towards her carers, an intriguing one, since it isn’t often that we credit a vulnerable identity, like Nicola, with the agency to make decisions about their ethical position or duty towards others. The question usually posed is about the duty of the powerful, the well, towards the weak, the sick. Of course, the latter is still an important question to consider in most circumstances, where the distribution of resources, material and psychological, are uneven; so, perhaps, there are no broader generalisations to be made about suffering and responsibility here outside of the circumstances of Nicola’s story?
On deeper reflection, I think the broader insights into the human condition that might be taken from Garner’s novel are to be found in the spare room of her title. The spare room is often the place where we store the things we don’t visit regularly, but can’t throw away, because they are still part of us. Garner’s spare room contains Nicola’s pain and suffering that Helen must accept. Nicola is right when she tells Helen that pain is nothing special: pain is a part of cancer, as well as a part of life. But the spare room is also a site of hospitality, wherein a guest is obliged to receive the extended welcome on the terms it is offered by the host. So, our insight here is Nicola’s insight: when we accept care we equally have a responsibility for the well-being of our carer.
This edition of The Spare Room was read by Heather Bolton in a straightforward manner to complement Garner’s compassionate, but unsentimental prose.