In a short, wise, oddly uplifting novel by Australian writer Garner, an old friend dying of cancer makes a memorable final visit.
Garner (The First Stone, 1997, etc.) tackles big themes—truth, death, the limits of friendship—with ease. Nicola and Helen are “old bohemians” whose bond reaches back a decade and a half. Sydney-based, wealthy Nicola is quirky and imperious (she has no use for deodorant, suitcases or underwear), whereas Melbourne-based Helen is more grounded, with family living next door. When Nicola arrives, her cancer is already far advanced: She has had surgery and radiation and is at stage four, the final stage, but the point of her visit is to try another, expensive alternative therapy. Helen, a tireless host, soon finds herself angry, partly because death has arrived in her house, partly because Nicola refuses stronger painkillers, but mainly because her friend stubbornly insists the treatment can cure her. Helen vents some of her mounting rage on the institution treating Nicola, taking her money while aware that her case is terminal. But eventually she confronts Nicola for using the treatments to distract herself from preparing for the end. When an oncologist advises a spinal operation, to be performed locally, which would mean Nicola's stay would be extended, Helen snaps. She can tend her friend no longer. What ensues is described briefly but with enormous love, despite Nicola's unchanging expectations.
Wit, simplicity and scorching honesty distinguish an understated triumph.