Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Spare Room

The Spare RoomThe Spare Room by Helen Garner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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The Man Who Loved Children

The Man Who Loved ChildrenThe Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Henrietta (Henny) and Samuel Pollitt both knew before they married that they never should have married, yet, bound by social convention and the need to secure a dowry, they did marry, and so, perhaps, the trajectory of their lives could only be the tragedy that plays out in this novel.

Henny and Sam’s thwarted expectations of life and marriage have repercussions beyond their individual disappointments to affect their children: Louise (Louie), Sam’s child from his halcyon first marriage, and the five children Henny subsequently bears. The children grow up in the cesspool of this bitter liaison, nurtured on their parents’ mutual violence.

I’m not entirely sure what Jonathan Franzen is talking about when he says this book is funny. Perhaps he’s referring to the moments where Henny’s threats seem like so much hyperbole, or when Sam’s baby-talk to his children descends to utter ridiculousness , but beneath that there is so much despair and narcissism, for Henny and Sam respectively, that for me every one of these moments contained a well of horror.

The Man Who Loved Children is a frightening, moving portrait of dysfunctional family life. Here, it is read by Fiona Press who, despite some distracting pronunciations of words (piahno), ensures we never wholly condemn any of the characters, even while deploring some of their actions.

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The Casual Vacancy

The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Casual Vacancy portrays the Pagford community in the aftermath of the death of Barry Fairbrother, one of its most prominent citizens. As a member of the local council, Barry was a champion of the much maligned public housing estate, The Fields. He worked tirelessly to create opportunities for the abject citizenry of his childhood home. While Barry’s death creates the casual vacancy of the title on the Pagford council, it proves devastating to Krystal Weedon, a teenager from The Fields and a member of the school girls’ rowing team that Barry coached.

Rowling’s first adult novel is a critique of the myth of social mobility. All too often, exceptional individuals, such as Barry, are paraded as evidence that with hard work anyone can be successful. But as the divisions and resentments between the residents of Pagford realign in the wake of Barry’s death, it becomes clear that age-old class and cultural distinctions will prevail, not least because of the machinations of its most influential citizens. Rowling offers insight into the often inexplicable psychology of poverty, as well as the complacency and entitlement of the privileged, all the while managing, admirably, a cast of complex characters.

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