The Booker longlist was announced last week and I was really disappointed by the absence of Helen Garner’s The Spare Room. It tells the story of Helen, an Australian woman, whose old friend Nicola comes to stay. Nicola has cancer and is dying, and Helen finds her life in turmoil as she tries to deal with emotional and practical consequences of living with a dying woman, and a dying woman who is rejecting all orthodox forms of care, at that.
When I was going through interviews for medical school, I was asked by one tutor to justify my English literature A-level, which sat uncomfortably on my UCCA form next to the science A-levels and the worthy work experience. I remember passionately trying to articulate (as only a seventeen year old can) what it was about fiction that was important to me, and what it had taught me that another science couldn’t have. I finally found the words to explain that any novel which teaches me about the human condition can only improve my ability to empathise and understand why people behave as they do. I talked about Shakespeare, Hardy and the Brontes with such urgency that I suspect he wondered if he was at the right interview.
The Spare Room is one of those novels. In the few hours I was reading it, I learnt more about the psychological effects of a terminal diagnosis on the patient and on his or her carer, than I have in some years as a doctor. It’s such a human piece of writing, and so full of affection and humour. I was fascinated to see the portrayal of doctors, too. Can I urge you to read it? I’d love to hear from others who have read it, especially other doctors.