Second Take Review: Of hair, and dust, and home

Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart, by Finuala Dowling. Cape Town: Kwela, 2011.

In amongst the curiosities in the vast and enviable archives at the University of Texas, Austin, there is a collection of locks of hair from famous authors and statesmen, carefully collated in the early 1800s by the Romantic poet and essayist Leigh Hunt. “They look,” says the blogger writing about it, “exactly as one imagines they should: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s curls rather like the coat of her spaniel, Flush; Keats’s wavy and luxuriantly brown; the older Wordsworth’s hair blondish, thin, and flecked with gray.” 1

There is an odd beauty and an evocative poignant pointlessness to this, as there is to the Victorian mourning jewellery created out of locks of hair that one can still find in antique markets in London.

Hair is at once the most delicate and last of our materials and survives us like love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death, that, with a lock of hair belonging to a child or friend we may almost look up to heaven and compare notes with angelic nature, may almost say, I have a piece of thee here, not unworthy of thy being now.

- “On Hair Ornaments”, Godey's Lady's Book 1850

Strange that a fragment of keratin can carry so much referential and symbolic weight – identity and personhood, emotional connectedness, reminders of mortality. It speaks to the power of fragments; to the observation of the minute, the mundane, the domestic, the ordinary.

A colleague of mine returned her borrowed copy of Finuala Dowling’s latest novel (Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart, Kwela Books 2011) to me after only a few days, saying “I couldn’t get into it. It was too … I don’t know … too wispy?”  There was part of me that agreed with her. Certainly Dowling’s novel is not characterised by robust, muscular plot. My father used to refuse to read novels written by women, saying that “Nothing happens in them”, and Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart would tend to confirm all his doleful prejudices. And yet. And yet.

The death mysteriously grows and prospers,
like dust, with house dust, Françoise,
it accumulates beneath each leg
table, Françoise, a powder, a few things
similar to those things that are made belly
beneath each leg of the table, the bed,
in the folds of the navel, a powder, a few things.

-Vicent Andres Estelles, L’Hotel Paris

Initially, Homemaking resided in the glovebox of my car. I read it in fragments, waiting in the school parking lot, in the street outside the guitar lesson, under the trees at the Family Life Centre while the weekly adolescent therapy session happened behind the stolid façade. One would think, for a novel that is not driven primarily by plot, and is structured around vignettes and episodic slivers of life, that this was the perfect way to approach it. But on the third day I carried it to my bedroom, and finished it in one long savoured lamplit mouthful into the quiet of the night, curled up in the loveliness of a white duvet, unglamorous flannel pyjamas and a catatonic cat. (I think Dowling’s main character would empathise.)

Wispiness is not the right word, although I do like its semantic connectedness to the strands of hair collected by Hunt and other Victorians. (And hair does feature sporadically in the novel – Pia’s Chinese noodle curls were a moment of sheer delight.)  “Distilled essences” is perhaps a better description. The capturing of something huge and powerful in the merest wisp (oh, ok) of perfume left in a room by someone who was there moments ago. Or, here’s another analogy. (Non-metrosexual male readers, pay attention. You may learn something.) You know how when you are doing the routine shopping for groceries, school supplies, basic underwear, and you wander through the perfume hall? “Just looking, thank you,” you say to the impossibly celluloid red-lipped siren. And when she moves on, you spray your wrists with a generous cloud of something ridiculously expensive and arbitrarily named. (Womanity? I mean, really.) And getting home and unpacking the groceries and the boring white bras you catch a waft. And you press your nose to your wrist and close your eyes and inhale. Dowling’s novel is like that.

The perfume analogy has failed me too, however. Dowling’s world is too real, too detailed, too practical. Frying pans lacquered with scrambled egg, dustbins, damp towels, dust, household detritus. The settings for her characters' lives – the house, the village, the nursing home, the farm – are detailed with a paradoxically restrained richness that reminds one of a 17th C still life painting.

Still Life with Cheeses, Floris van Dijck c. 1615-20, RijksMuseum

16th and 17th century still life paintings often had mortality as a particular focus, and so I am back to that theme.  Arguably the most powerful skein in the threads of Homemaking is the dying of Zoe. Her long, slow departure by degrees from herself, her world and her daughter is a major arc of the novel. And Dowling captures the complexity of this experience in all its nuance – the ugliness, the humour, the pointlessness, the tedium, the unbearable matter-of-factness. Her descriptions have a purity and an honesty about them that leave the reader naked, vulnerable and exposed without feeling remotely manipulated. With eyes closed, one inhales.

Inhaling, however, is a transaction in evanesence. And here lies, perhaps, some of my unease with this novel. In its starkness of construction, its absence of “action” and plot, the capturing of emotion in recorded detail and appearance rather than narrative interpretation, it reminds one of an Edward Hopper painting.

Nighthawks (2), Edward Hopper, 1942, Art Institute of Chicago

Francoise Barbe-Gall, in How to look at a painting,3 comments that Hopper’s work “functions with the efficacy of a trap, creating a sense of expectation in the viewer, inviting us to imagine that because this void exists, something will come and fill it. He provides a scene and characters, but never a plot. It is as if he has arranged a meeting knowing he will not turn up for it” (46). The consequence in a Hopper painting and, to an extent, in Dowling’s novel, is a sense of disillusionment, a confirmation of the lostness and loneliness of the human condition. Pulled off well, this can be a masterful aesthetic coup.

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

-TS Eliot, The Wasteland

There are two risks to this strategy, however. One is wimping out and going for a marginally upbeat ending, tied up in a bow. The other is trailing off into pointlessness and the big “so what?”  Dowling skirts perilously close to both of these. Much of the success of the Hopper approach depends on our curiosity about and investment in the characters. In Dowling’s writing many of her characters have become familiar to us over the course of her novels. And for some readers we know the real shadows that the characters cast in real life.  This may enrich our reading of them (and certainly adds to the prurience of our curiosity), but it also can impoverish our reading experience in that we have pre-made assumptions and expectations and back-story. The challenge for Dowling is to re-imagine her characters in ways that intrigue and engage the curiosity of all her readers. I look forward to being surprised and startled by Dowling, in ways that did not fully happen in this novel.

I did love the wonderfully understated pattern of maiden-mother-crone. The restraint and artistry meant that the writing was seamless and translucent and did not once draw attention to itself. Returning to my opening trope of the locks of hair that looked “exactly as one imagines they should”, Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart has a rightness about it. It reads exactly as it should. Dowling’s curls have arrived at a mature writerliness. Now I invite her to let them riot.


1. Locks of Ages: The Leigh Hunt hair collection

2. Nighthawks on Wikipedia

3. Frances Lincoln Limited 2010

Also see the SLiPnet review “Dowling's best novel yet