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.
- Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart by Finuala Dowling
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