Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart. Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2011.
I don’t really care what Finuala Dowling’s characters do, to be honest, just as long as she is the one who is telling me about it. In Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart, she makes the mundanities of domestic life seem vibrant and new; and her characters are at once instantly recognizable and sparklingly original. In her latest novel, Dowling tells the story of a Kalk Bay family whose lives revolve, to a greater or lesser extent, around their matriarch Zoe Thesen, the irreverent co-author of the handbook from which the novel takes its title. But Zoe is dying, and it’s an awful business. The account of her physical and mental decline is surely the most touching thing in the book. It’s tricky, writing about senility and death: neither of them could be described as “feel-good” topics, and readers will balk if they think their emotions are being manipulated. The specter of the death of Little Nell looms large (Victorian emotions running amok, letters to the press). And if you don’t err on the side of sentimentality, you face the perils of glib satire and Grumpy-Old-Men stereotypes. Dowling avoids both of these pitfalls, and presents Zoe’s decline with restrained compassion and gritty honesty. The indignities that Zoe must endure are keenly felt, and there is a sincere rawness to this portrait that I found profoundly moving. This is, in part, a consequence of the novel’s autobiographical antecedents, and Dowling’s frankness about what it is like to live with a dying parent – the mess, the frustrations, the unedifying emotions, the failure to live up to conventions of care and daughterhood – is as startling as it is generous.
Only a few writers can be funny and moving at the same time about senility and death: Dowling is one of them, and David Lodge is perhaps another (I’m thinking of his latest novel, Deaf Sentence). One way in which Dowling achieves a balance between wit and sincerity is in her presentation of a cast of characters who are so reassuringly, delightfully flawed. In addition to Zoe (who in spite of, and because of, her condition provides us with some of the quirkiest one-liners in the novel), there is Margot, mother/ daughter/housekeeper/late-night broadcaster/nursemaid and (when she has the time for it, and is not too tired, put-upon or anxious) lover. Many a mother-daughter will ruefully identify with Margot’s sleep-fixation, and her comparison of solitude to a ‘bed newly made up with clean cotton sheets, the covers turned down and inviting” (57). There is Leroy, Margot’s incorrigible ex-husband; Pia, their teenage daughter torn between the competing imperatives of childhood and adolescence; and Curtis, sexy Karoo farmer, Margot’s sometime-lover (see “tired, put-upon” etc, above) and handyman who has parent problems of his own. There is also Joylene, Zoe’s nurse and Margot’s angel; and Mr Morland (first name Percy, but Zoe won’t have it), the ace slob psychic with a heart who is completely without guile and possibly the best thing amongst many best things in the book.
Dowling’s dark comedy is, as with her earlier novels and poetry, also propelled by her clear insight into the ridiculous core of the quotidian: the way Marmite from a new jar tastes better than the stuff you find in the bottom-eighth of an old one (13); how newborn babies look like butternuts (“fleshy and bald” 49); and how an excavation of a teenager’s room will always render up at least “two empty cool-drink bottles, a dirty cereal bowl and a tea mug” (175). Occasional references to Zoe’s Handbook for the Down-at-Heart nostalgically narrates the long-ago relationship between its co-authors, and provides snippets of wicked wisdom and anti-homilies, reminding us that “children are often in a mild state of shock when they come home from school” (113) and suggesting that “if one or two flies have made their way into the gluhwein, pass them off as raisins” (100).
Dowling treats her subject and her characters with love and solicitude, and she seems genuinely to like her readers. This is nowhere more in evidence than in the extraordinary care she takes with her writing – there isn’t a pompous phrase, a lazy metaphor, a conventional emotion or an untested cliché in the book. Her writing appears effortless, but in truth every page is crafted and precise. Finuala Dowling is simply a wonderful writer, and this is her best book yet.
Also see the SLiPnet review “Of hair and dust and home”.