Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Household Guide to Dying

I was given an advance copy of The Household Guide to Dying: A Novel About Life by Debra Adelaide in order to participate in the Mother Talk review of it.

When I was reading the first couple of pages I thought "Oh no...it's another Martha Quest!" I only say that because of the chickens scratching in the dirt, and I thought in the beginning that Adelaide was going to be like Lessing, who was so wordy and gave so much detail that the joy of reading that is creating the setting and characters in your mind was squashed.

I quickly realized that I was wrong. Wrong. Wrong. While there are several passages that are a bit cryptic, it's actually in order to make way for a couple of the twists you're not expecting. Adelaide creates the world of Delia, a household advice columnist, whose snarky and sometimes off-topic responses have made her an Australian icon. Basing her world on the work of Mrs. Beeton, an actual English-woman from the 1800's who wrote Mrs. Beeton's Guide to Household Management beginning at the ripe old age of 21, which offered advice on everything from how to deal with servant's pay to caring for a sick child.

Due to the popularity of her column, Delia became famous for her own series of Household Guide books; The Household Guide to Home Maintenance, The Household Guide to the Kitchen, The Household Guide to the Garden and The Household Guide to the Laundry. Pushing the idea the furthest possible, and in order to provide some catharsis for herself upon making the decision to cease unsuccessful chemotherapy treatments, her publisher agreed to The Household Guide to Dying which would provide readers with advice for everything from selecting a coffin (she refused to call it a casket) to making meals ahead to freeze for the family you'd leave behind (if you were a mother as was she).

The sections of the book where she talks about the laundry were so tantalizing that I found myself imagining how I'd have my laundry room in the home that my husband promises me we'll someday own. It was striking to me how the attitude in other countries is so different regarding the laundry. I have a friend from Australia and I know that we're still shocked that she doesn't own a clothes dryer; so I laughed out loud when I read the following passage regarding the code of the clothesline:

And then, in the suburbs, washing left on the line overnight indicated a serious lapse in domestic care. Probably outright immorality: where was that woman? Off in the ladies' lounge having a shandy, no doubt. It was also a clear invitation to thieves and perverts to jump over your fence and steal your lace bras or frilly underpants should you be silly and vain enough to own them.

Finally, you never used dryers. These were for lazy and wasteful people, of those unfortunates who had to live in apartments? In the suburbs, where the sun was generous and a fresh breeze was free, it was a crime not to hang your washing out.

One reviewer called her Household Guide to the Laundry "laundry porn" and I found myself very disappointed that I'd never get to read the full texts of the tomes to which Delia so often referred. It was a little titilating to read about all the mundane tasks of maintaining your home in such a fresh way, and in a silly way, it was just what I needed to read following my three year-old outburst to my husband a few days ago during which I railed about the fact that I didn't get a gold star by my name at the end of the day; I was gifted only with more exhaustion...good times.
The Household Guide is so much more than meets the eye. Taking a journey with Delia through her life as a teen mother who tries to follow the wandering musician of a circus family father of her unborn child to a small town in Northern Australia to her life as a work from home mother of two married to a caring and wonderful landscaper, this book has surprising depth and also a lot of humor.
Another thing that struck me was that as she talked about the way she manages her house, it would take the mention of an iPod or MySpace to remind me that this was a 21st century wife, mother and successful writer, just bringing home that it is quite possible to immerse yourself in the running of your home without having to relegate yourself to historical relic.

When asked how she chose the topic Adelaide replied "Authors will often say the reverse, that the idea or the topic or the entire novel chooses them. In my case, I'm not sure that I did choose to write this novel, but I do remember setting myself a challenge to write about dying in a way that would be original and, in particular, comical. Fiction is – in part, anyway – the place to confront things and explore ideas that in your own life you are too timid to do. Dying tends to confound most of us, frighten us, make us literally lost for words. We have a lot of trouble finding the right things to say and do when we're required to cope with death. In The Household Guide to Dying, I used the character of Delia as a bold and sometimes confronting voice who is trying to make the idea of dying more palatable to those around her, as well as herself struggling to find the right way to express a process that is profound and universal. Her way is via humour, which for her sometimes works, and sometimes not. And sometimes, despite all her efforts, the words literally evade her."

Because I get a little 'connected' with my characters (aka, I have a hard time accepting that SJP is not really Carrie Bradshaw), I googled Mrs. Beeton and was excited to learn that she was real, and so is her Household Guide. I then got even more excited when they made a reference to a "Delia" (Delia Smith) who is an iconic chef in England. She is a modern figure who announced her TV retirement in 2003 and then filmed a 6 part mini-series in 2008, which aired on BBC. "The Delia Effect" is in reference to the fact that she caused such things as a 10% surge in egg sales after her segment on omelettes and several other overnight sell-outs or "a run on previously poor-selling product as a result of a high-profile recommendation." She also wrote a bestseller How To Cheat at Cooking. But alas, it was just a coincidence of the name, as Adelaide reports that no characters were based on true figures.

While the title may seem like a real Debbie Downer, it is ultimately a novel about life; an examination by a wife, mother and woman who is finally able to take the time to tie up her loose ends and think about the mark she'll leave on those she leaves behind.

You will read this book, if for no other reason than to find out what I mean when I say these two words; blood sausage.

Debra Adelaide is the author of two other novels, The Hotel Albatross and Serpent Dust, and the editor of four themed collections of fiction and memoirs, the latest of which is Acts of Dog. She has worked as a researcher, editor and book reviewer, and has a PhD from the University of Sydney. She is now a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Technology, Sydney.

1 comment:

Portlandia said...

I have eaten blood sausage, many times, with mustard LOL!