Friday, 10 January 2020

The Household Guide to Dying


It wasn't my intention to start this book a few months ago. I didn't think it would be a good idea given that my week was going to include the funeral of an old friend. But then I hopped in my car for a road trip to discover that I had forgotten to download the other audiobook that I was actually planning to listen to. What to do? What to do? I had to listen to something... so I started this one, albeit somewhat cautiously. Planning to bail and just listen to music if I had to. 


Only to have the first chapter be all about dying in spring. Oh dear. This was flying rather close to reality. 

It didn't get more cruel than this: the season of expectation, of hope, of growth; the season of the future, when there was none at all. 
But there were enough difference to let me continue. Our first person narrator of The Household Guide to Dying is Delia Bennet. A woman in her late thirties, with a husband and two young children, Delia is dying of metastatic breast cancer. Depressing enough when you're feeling a bit fragile. 

Delia is a copyeditor, proofreader and writer and  has had an "accidental" career as an author to various Household Guides. The Household Guide to Home Maintenance. The Household Guide to the Kitchen. The Household Guide to the Laundry. A veritable modern day Mrs Beeton (who is reference multiple times in the book). Now Delia wants to write The Household Guide to Dying.

Always a devoted reader, I found myself surprisingly ahead when I commenced the arts degree. I finished under time to discover I was brilliantly unqualified for anything. 
The Household Guide to Dying is filled with literary references, whether discussing dying mothers
How cruel, how unfair, how totally unsporting, how unlike the stout mothers of public life, the mothers of fiction. You could never imagine Mrs Gandhi or Mrs Micawber or Mrs Thatcher or Mrs Weasley dying before their time and leaving their children unmothered. The prime minister's wife - any prime ministers wife - Nicole Kidman's mother, Mrs Jellyby, Angelina Jolie, the Queen, Lady Jane Franklin, Mrs George Bush Senior and Junior .... they would never have died young and left motherless children. They might have been doubtful, dominating or dysfunctional - all Dickens's mothers were- but they stayed around. Even Lady Dedlock hung in there. Jane Austen's Mrs Bennet would never have left five young daughters weeping over a coffin. 
or dying readers. There is a whole chapter on what to read when you're actually, actively dying. 

Even before I realised I'd be leaving this world prematurely, I had fantasised over what I would be reading at the point of death. 
How practicalities interfered.
Middlemarch was far too heavy. Witty, yes. Ardent, doubtless. But just too damn heavy.... Lolita was too clever. Pride and Prejudice was suddenly all so brittle... Madame Bovary far too sly... Then I realised, when I started rejecting books that I knew were perfect works of literature, that it was not them, and not the authors. It was me, the reader. The reader in me was unwinding, spooling backwards. The reader who was me was now no longer. 
But it's more than a book about illness and dying, it's also mediation on the lives of modern women and mothers.

Thirty years later, it was different. We women of the early twenty-first century knew we were poised somewhere between domestic freedom and servitude. The home was ripe for reinvention. Event he theorists were claiming it. Angels were out, they'd been expelled years back. Now you could be a goddess, a beautiful producer of lavish meals in magnificent kitchen temples. Or a domestic whore, audaciously serving store-bought risottos and oversized oysters and leaving the cleaning to others. Goddess or whore, both were acceptable. 
The burden of choice, one of the late twentieth century's most insidious was lifted. 
One of the literary references really spoke to me. The Metaphysical Poets was not a book I knew. Despite the fact that this was published in 1965 and I could well have been tortured with it in high school.  I've never recovered from my lifelong loathing of poetry caused by misadventures in high school English.  Of course a few days later on a spontaneous visit to the Newcastle Lifeline Book Fair the universe threw up a copy of this classic into my path. I couldn't help but buy it... among a few other things. 
It was if one person in the world had decided that school-kids should eternally read Hamlet, To Kill a Mockingbird, Herodotus's Histories, The Catcher in the Rye, and something called The Metaphysical Poets.
Of those I only had to suffer through Histories

There was a lot of beautiful writing about the mundane, the every day.  About back yards, lawns and chook sheds. 

I entered the shed. Despite the dust, the earthy pungency of the chicken manure, the remains of bones and shell and everything else they unearthed in their endless, resales scratching for vermicular treats, the shed and the run was a pleasant place. It offered tender moments that couldn't be found anywhere else. The angled poles of light capturing swirls of golden dust. The feathers rising and settling on the ground. The clucking that sounded equally contented and distressed. The air of expectancy that emanated from every hen, no matter how silly. The pure optimism that kept her laying an egg day after day, when day after day that egg was taken away. 
My day job often interferes with my enjoyment of medical scenes or procedures. There is a rather preposterous medical situation later in the book, and it was so egregious that for me it was like the rest of the book was suddenly a bit out of focus ( even though I was listening to it). Although when Delia goes to observe an autopsy it was clear that Debra Adelaide had been in Glebe Coroner's Court, and I had more than a tingle of recognition. 

Overall my sad week in September was actually a good week to listen to The Household Guide to Dying. Some of it resonated very strongly, and much of it has stayed with me months later. I have more Debra Adelaide on my TBR, I'm looking forward to getting to it. 


I loved Heather Bolton's narration of the audiobook. She had me in from the start. 


Read in 2019, blogged in 2020.



http://australianwomenwriters.com
http://australianwomenwriters.com

No comments: