Cancer’s shadow seems inevitable these days, doesn’t it? Bound to touch your life somehow, in some way, sooner or later. I’ve just read two books that grapple with this issue and frankly, it makes for uncomfortable reading.
Helen Garner reflects on an experience with cancer, with her novel ‘The Spare Room’ (2008).
Helen prepares her spare room for the arrival of Nicola, a long time friend who needs accomodation in Melbourne for three weeks while she undergoes alternative treatments for bowel cancer.
Considerable thought is put into the preparation of the spare room, almost ritual like. Will she want a mirror? What about the rug? Here’s a flower for the bedside table. Though nothing, nothing could have prepared her or the reader for the events that were to follow. Nicola’s denial at her proximity to death is understandable, but frustrating. She’s a fiercely independent woman who wields a smile like a sword, the only weapon left that will stave off the inevitable truth: she is dying.
The Spare Room is exhausting, hopeful, beautiful and haunting. Woven of body fluids, butting of heads, sleep deprivation and moments of vulnerability, the story rattles and stirs the soul. It’s a wonderful work about friendship and humanity that I’m not sure is entirely real, but can’t possibly be entirely fictional.
The Spare Room is a novel you can finish in one sitting, and carry with you long after its read.
Jodi Picoult deals with cancer in ‘My Sister’s Keeper’ (2004).
I’ve never read a Picoult book before. I still don’t know what I think of this one to be honest, though I’m glad I’ve read it. I’m confronted by the fragility of the human body. As a mum I’m confronted by the lack of control when it comes to your children’s health. I’m confronted by this thing called cancer that ravages little bodies, leaving many victims in its wake.
My Sister’s Keeper is a story about a girl, Anna, who was genetically engineered to be a donor match for her sister Kate who has acute promyeloctic leukemia. Anna has faithfully kept her sister alive for years donating blood, bone marrow, lymphocytes, the list goes on. When told that her kidney would be required next, Anna decides she no longer wants to be ‘spare parts’ for her sister, instead opting to sue her parents for ‘medical emancipation’, the right to make her own medical decisions. This is where the story begins.
This topic raises significant bio-ethical questions that are extremely important. Genetic engineering is no longer a sci-fi projection, but a reality. Bio-ethics must be increasingly difficult terrain to navigate as technology continues to shift and change, providing more choices than ever before – but, at what cost?
Despite these big picture questions about ethics, human rights and medicine, I found the novel was ultimately about family, the turbulence of life with a sick child and the extremes we go to to save them. The real challenge for me is how the hell you manage to keep a family together through stuff like that? How do you cope? How do you pay attention to all your children when one of them is dying? How do you make the excruciating decisions that this kind of situation requires? I don’t think the author tries to provide answers to these – thankfully, it would almost be offensive if she did, but she does paint a good picture of a family facing these questions.
You could argue that My Sister’s Keeper is just a story, nothing to get your knickers in a knot about, but stories are never just stories are they? They’re not meant to be. Throughout history stories have been used to inspire, instruct, encourage. They’re designed to pull at the loose threads of our belief systems, tearing down and deconstructing the fantasy worlds we build for ourselves. The Spare Room and My Sister’s Keeper do that. Well, they do for me. In that sense, these two stories are more uncomfortable than any horror story I’ve ever read.
Yes, you know what? I honestly prefer being terrified by monsters dark, forboding and hearteningly fictional. I’ll take nightmares of unseen creatures lurking under my bed over nightmares of the unseen creatures under the skin – any day.