Finuala Dowling - 2011-06-08 Untitled Document
Title: Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart
Author: Finuala Dowling
Review by Janet van Eeden
If you find yourself caught between concerns for the well-being of your parents and fears for your children’s future, then you are in the unenviable stage of middle age.
Finuala Dowling has written a gem of a book to comfort those at this stage of life. Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart finds the main character, Margot, caught up in a cycle of chores, caring for those dependent on her, and work. As a night-time radio talk show host she has to dredge up her radio persona from the depths of exhaustion to deal with the strange breed of callers keen to phone in after midnight over weekends. Some of them insult her and her programme, and she finds their jibes hurt more than the praise she receives from others. On the whole she’s revered as a media personality. The station’s marketing campaign has placed gigantic billboards across Cape Town promoting “Margot after Midnight” and she’s always recognised in the street.
But when she returns home just before sunrise to her little house near Kalk Bay, all she longs for is her bed and sleep before her demanding household awakens. There’s Curtis, her gentle lover who may just be passing through on his journey through life. Then there’s Mr Morland, a remnant from her extended family who spends his life in a psychic haze. And there’s her daughter Pia, breaking through puberty into adulthood with all the complications that accompany this rite of passage. To top it all, Margot’s aging mother, Zoe, once a famous and much-lauded author of a book called Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart, has reached the full-blown stage of Alzheimer’s disease. Zoe is disgruntled with everything and everyone, and only Mr Morland is able to soothe her with his calm presence. To complete the mix there’s Leroy, an ex-husband who is incapable of earning money or keeping friends for long. Margot’s life is never her own, except when she manages to escape for an early morning walk along the beach promenade. This peace is threatened too, however, by thugs who prey on people as they pass the subways.
Margot’s life is a disastrous muddle. But somewhere in the midst of cleaning up dog poo and soothing disgruntled family members Margot finds glimpses of elusive happiness.
Dowling is the master (or should that be mistress?) of the art of understated storytelling. In her simple rendering of events she uncovers remarkable depths of character in her creations. As life ticks by, with its endless mundanities and chores, Zoe’s book seems to hold the essence of comfort for her. As Margot rereads the original manuscript she realises that the only way to live life is in tiny increments. Whether cleaning up dog poo – again! – or cleaning up her mother’s or ex-husband’s messes, the secret of happiness seems to be in appreciating the details in all their messy glory.
Dowling is an exquisite writer, and her skill as a poet ensures that she never wastes a word. Her characters are brilliantly drawn with as much intricate detail as a petit point tapestry. This is a delightful and comforting read for anyone who has tried to juggle her own needs with those of a demanding family. Most especially, though, it is the perfect read for the homemaker who may very well be a little down at heart.
A shorter version of this review appeared in The Witness.
Finuala, your novel is such a comfort to those of us who are dealing with aging parents at the same time as coping with teenage children. Is this book based on your own experiences of the same or is it pure fiction?
I experienced the double-sided pressure of the “sandwich” years between 2005 and 2009, but unlike Margot I was not alone. I have seven brothers and sisters and we shared a roster of duties, and the financial burden too, as dementia overtook our beloved mother. Two of my sisters have always been around to act in loco parentis. So I was hard on Margot, isolating her like that.
You dedicate this novel to your mother, Eve van der Byl, who was well known as a radio personality a few decades ago. Was she the inspiration for your Margot character, who is also a broadcaster? Or was her character drawn mainly from your imagination?
Both my parents were broadcasters – that’s how they met – and I often spent time at the Sea Point studios watching my mother record from the other side of the soundproof glass. When I was really young I stared at the radio wondering how Daddy had got inside. So radio has always fascinated me. Margot has some of the outspokenness of both my parents, as well as my mother’s exquisitely nuanced and modulated voice. But Margot is definitely not my mother, who was much better in a crisis than Margot is, and much more compassionate and resourceful. For some of Margot’s talk-radio frustrations I drew on my conversations with John Maytham, or his show or other CapeTalk anchors. But mostly Margot is based on my own darker side and my own imagining of what it would be like to have only that darker side, without the lightness and optimism that are just as much me, but not reflected in the novel. I must add that character in fiction is arrived at through a complex process of layering, palimpsest, pastiche and invention. It may look as though there’s some easy one-to-one correspondence, but there isn’t.
I loved the extracts you included from the “book” Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart. Was there ever such a book or did the homely philosophies come from your mother? In essence I suppose I’m asking where the inspiration for the book came from. And would you ever consider writing such a book, just for fun?
I made it up. I wouldn’t dream of trying to write such a book (though my sisters say that if I do, they’d like to offer their own memories).
The book-within-the-book, Zoe’s Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart, is a symbolic construct: it stands for the legacy that I imagine any good mother leaves behind: an accessible compendium of lore and law, of remedies, games, recipes, advice and subversive instruction that makes it possible for the next generation to carry on in the same spirit. My mother was spontaneous, off the cuff and famously witty, but all of that sophisticated hilarity was underpinned by a strong practical sense of the value of iodine, the need for cake, and the best way to build character. Everything she said sounded like an aphorism – she was definitely more Oscar Wilde than Martha Stewart. She was too busy living to write at any length, but she encouraged me to be the family chronicler. I created, for Christmas every year, satirical family newspapers, charts and even a mock scholarly introduction to the Dowlings. My mother was my best audience and critic – if something I wrote wasn’t funny, she’d raise her eyebrows. If it was funny, she wouldn’t rest till everyone had read it. She loved tragedy too, and quoted chunks of King Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet. I suppose what I’m saying is that she taught me the importance of emotional range.
As with most women of Margot’s age, her life seems to be filled with one chore after another. It’s strange, isn’t it, how we feel as if our lives are eroded by the needs of others when we reach what is known as “middle age”. Is this something we just have to accept, or do you think that women might be allowed to have time to themselves if they balanced life properly, as the women’s magazines tend to promise us?
I don’t think women’s magazines have the capacity, given their commercial constraints, to help women today. That may be why so many of them fold, or carry on with marginal readerships – they haven’t been able to keep up with the massive changes in the lives of their target market, as longevity coincides with later motherhood, so that the very old and the very young are jointly cared for by one very strung-out piggy-in-the-middle.
The notion of “balance” is a myth. You can’t be a nurse and a mother and a breadwinner and still feel simply super about your life. This unenviable destiny is to our generation what the necessity of becoming a governess was to Charlotte Brontë’s. If you can’t afford round-the-clock staff, au pairs or expensive facilities, then there’s nothing for it but to cry out like Jane Eyre, “Grant me at least a new servitude.”
Your writing is beautifully economical. As a film writer myself, I love authors who don’t write swathes of padded prose. Do you think your economy with words is a result of poetry being your first love? And could you tell the readers of LitNet how this transition came about from poetry to novel writing?
I was first published as a poet, even though I wanted to be a novelist. I had failed at my first two attempts at the novel form because I tried to write the kinds of novels I thought South Africans should write (about guilt, race and farms). When I turned to poetry I felt that I knew what I was doing – I followed no prescriptions. In fact, I had this sense of actively writing away from a certain kind of poetry I didn’t like and towards another kind of poetry that I myself wanted to read but hadn’t found yet. When I flying was welcomed by a surprisingly wide readership, I felt emboldened: I could at last sit down and write a novel without worrying about “relevance”.
Poetry taught me (and continues to teach me) how to write. Above all, poetry teaches you the art of synecdoche – of allowing the concrete part to stand in for the abstract whole. I trust poetry because it has no truck with market forces – there are so few poetry readers, and there’s no money to be made from poetry, and no hoo-ha. There’s a purity to your intentions when you write a poem. Novelists must surely allow impure thoughts of a screenplay or a runaway bestseller to enter their thoughts, however momentarily, and who knows how that mercantile thought skews or corrupts the creative act?
What advice would you give to a young writer who is trying to write fiction, about not overwriting?
Observe, make drafts, cut out clichés and tautology; distil. Trust to synecdoche. Write with the reader in mind. Do not bore, discount or patronise the reader.
I remember being delighted with your novel What Poets Need when I read it some time ago. It was so refreshing at that time to find a novel which didn’t beat any political drums. Do you think South African fiction writing has come into its own at last, without needing to be “worthy”?
I think that at least some South African writers will continue to write books with overtly political themes, as they should. But the narrow, schematic focus, the pedantry and the chip-on-the-shoulder stuff has gone: there’s innovation now, and daring.
What is the best part about being a writer working from home?
Not wasting time in the traffic or in office politics or meetings. Being able to start the day at the beach. Writing in your pyjamas or your wet bathing costume if the mood takes you.
What is the worst part?
The people who think you are available for coffee and lunch and long phone chats and (my worst) advice. The way housekeeping and dogs distract you.
You give lectures on writing poetry and run workshops for aspirant writers, am I right? How does lecturing or teaching feed into your own work?
When I’m with other writers, encouraging them or critiquing them, it reminds me how hard writing is. That’s a comfort – that it’s hard for all of us. You have to keep going at things until the breakthrough moment. Sometimes I worry that I might be teaching and mentoring too much – that I’m not conserving enough energy for my own poems and novels. But actually I don’t think creativity is a non-renewable resource. I think it’s a muscle. The more you practise your craft, the more muscular you get.
What are you working on at the moment? Can we expect more poetry from you in the future or is novel -writing taking up all your time?
I need to spend time writing poetry before I take up another novel – to play around with some of the themes and the emotional content that might enter novel 4. The new novel’s skeleton will start growing, even though I’m not consciously writing it yet, but at the moment all I want is more poems.