I’m back from my big adventure and a tad behind on a large number of projects. So … I thought I’d post a review I wrote for a competition recently (which did not bear fruit), until I can offer up posts on my holiday reading material.
Dying is an ambitious topic to tackle in fiction. While death is used as a plot device or metaphor in countless novels, it’s not usually the driving force of the narrative.
Debra Adelaide makes death and dying the central theme in her 2008 novel The Household Guide to Dying. But while the impending demise of the narrative character propels the story, it’s also a mechanism for a broader story arc that prevents the novel from being a one-trick pony.
The novel revolves around Delia, a “domestic advice” columnist, whose often acerbic advice masks a woman whose life has not always been as well ordered as her pantry. Exhausted and ravaged from chemotherapy, Delia is preparing herself for the natural conclusion to a long battle against breast cancer.
In between making plans for her young daughters’ future weddings, and stocking the fridge with frozen home-cooked meals, she decides her final book of household advice should be about dying – a subject she’s now qualified to write about with absolute authority.
Delia’s impending death – which she faces with an often jarring sense of practicality –provides the motivation to not only prepare her family for a future without her, but to also finally tend to old wounds inflicted in a small country town many years earlier.
The Household Guide to Dying at first feels like another of those stories intent on celebrating the simple pleasures in life, usually best perceived in moments of human frailty. Certainly Adelaide has a wonderful eye for detail and an evocative turn of phrase, but she’s also intent on telling a story. So, as Delia starts to unpick the seams that have held her life together, it’s apparent there’s much more to this fastidious woman than immaculately laundered clothing and perfect cups of tea. Adelaide paints her stroke by stroke and, ironically, the closer she comes to death, the more human she becomes on the page.
The household, and the role of a woman in it, is a powerful motif throughout the story. So much so, the novel could easily be mistaken as a treatise on the pre-feminist importance of women in society. But a closer examination suggests Delia’s commitment to a perfectly ordered household is a response to the unpredictability of life in the world outside – a world that has left her with deep, well hidden, scars.
Over the years, she’s taken control of her household with almost militant precision, and she approaches death in much the same fashion. Almost every decision she makes is about controlling as much as she can in the lives of those she loves from beyond the grave.
The Household Guide to Dying is meticulously constructed, with the mood continually shifting from humorous to macabre, witty to poignant. Delia’s catalogue of household knowledge and responses to hapless advice seekers are woven between accounts of her final days, and flashbacks to the moments that have shaped her life. Events are told outside of chronological order, ensuring the gentle pace of the story never stalls and saving it from being too flippant, morbid or melodramatic.
There can be no accusations of sentimentality here. Delia doesn’t pass through the seven stages of grief – at least not on the page – and perhaps the story would have been even richer if she had. But what grief she doesn’t express for herself, she does for the past, and when her moment of redemption finally comes, it’s surprisingly effective.
Threaded through all of this is Delia’s research into her own “household guide to dying” – learning about caskets, funeral services and autopsies. The latter is meant to emphasise the banality of death in the face of unbearable grief, but – aside from feeding morbid curiosity – is distracting by its detail.
Helen Garner also tackled the subject of dying in 2008, with her much lauded novel The Spare Room. It’s told from the perspective of a woman forced to watch a dying friend struggle against the inevitable. Narrator Helen agrees to support a friend battling the final stages of a terminal cancer while she undergoes bizarre experimental treatment. Over the course of three emotionally-charged weeks, Helen becomes nurse, guardian angel and unflinching judge of the choices made by her dying friend.
Ironically, Delia is more emotionally muted in her response to death than Garner’s Helen, but then Delia’s story is influenced by a different tension. In The Household Guide to Dying, the tension is not just about Delia facing her own mortality; it’s about what she needs to do before she can face it with a sense of completeness. To her, the task is everything.
Although The Household Guide to Dying is not focused solely on Delia’s inexorable steps towards death, it still manages to be confronting, simply because it deals with issues of mortality and how that theme translates off the page.