Now that popular household advice columnist Delia Bennet is dying from cancer, she's compiled the ultimate to-do list: plan her daughter's future wedding, fill the freezer with her family's favorite meals- perhaps even do some matchmaking for her husband.
But just as Delia comes to terms with the impossibility of ever tying every loose thread together in her too-short time, an unexpected visitor helps her believe in her life's worth in a way no list ever could...
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About the Author
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Originally published in Australia by Pan Macmillan Australia 2008
First published in the United States by G. P. Putnam’s Sons 2009
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The household guide to dying / Debra Adelaide.
eISBN : 978-1-101-02921-3
1. Terminally ill—Fiction. 2. Self-realization—Fiction. 3. Advice columnists—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the
author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living
or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses
at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for
changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does
not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Dedicated with love to the memory of
Adam Wilton and Alison McCallum
The first thing I did this morning was visit the chickens. Archie had already given them the kitchen scraps, so I leaned over the fence and scattered handfuls of layer pellets. As always, they fussed and squabbled as if they’d never been fed before and never would be again. Then I opened the gate and went to the laying boxes, where they crowded into one corner, although there was plenty of room. There were three clean eggs: two brown, one white. Not so long ago I could tell which chicken had laid which egg. Now sometimes I couldn’t even remember their names. I picked the eggs up carefully. One was still warm. Touch is extraordinary, how it triggers memory, and so then I did remember that the tea-colored ones were from the brown chickens, and the smaller white one was Jane’s. I held it to my cheek for a moment, savoring its warmth, its wholesomeness. I wondered if this was something that poets would ever write about, because it was an experience I treasured. The comforting shape, the startling freshness. The idea that this egg, white and perfect in the palm of my hand, was a potential new life, requiring of the world nothing but warmth.
Ripeness is all. That was something a poet once said. Eliot, I think. Or Shakespeare. Perhaps both—it’s hard to remember now.
With the eggs in my pocket I made my way back up the garden. Inside the house, the phone was ringing again, but I didn’t bother rushing to answer it. It stopped after five rings. It had been doing that a bit lately.
The air was rinsed clean from the rain earlier. I could hear the clipping of hand shears. That would be Mr. Lambert next door at work maintaining his lawn; Mr. Lambert for whom a heavy dew, rain or even a snowfall—if such a thing were possible here in the temperate suburbs—never inhibited his devotion to the task. As if in his latter years, all his focus could only be directed down. I realized Mr. Lambert had avoided my eye for years. I wondered if he thought about returning to the earth, now that retirement had gripped him and even his grandchildren no longer visited. Or was that just me, thinking about my own future?
Did I say future? I really wish there was the right word for all this, because irony doesn’t come close, is completely inadequate. For a start, I discovered that Eliot was right about the cruelest month—except here in the southern hemisphere it wasn’t April, but October. Spring was mocking me with its glorious signals that summer was on the way. The wisteria outside my window making the most splendid mess of the veranda. The driveway littered with papery blossoms. My car confettied with them. If I’d been driving this morning it would have been annoying, but instead I was free to admire the way the flowers had been tossed across the windshield. The shabby old car was as radiant as a bride. And now the sun was out and the wind was warm, I could smell the wisteria. Or perhaps it was the jasmine, which was along the front fence, just out of sight. My sense of smell was becoming muffled.
What is it about mauve and purple flowers? I remembered now that Mr. Eliot (my high school English teacher always referred to him with respect) also had a thing about them—lilacs and hyacinths—but for me it was wisteria, and now irises. Archie planted irises in an old concrete laundry tub he’d turned into a pond, and each year they were more crowded and abundant. I’d been watching them over the past week or two. Their great long spears. The subtle swell of the buds on the stems. On the way back from the chicken shed, I noticed that the first one was out. It was bent over—perhaps the rain earlier was stronger than I thought—but the bloom was unharmed. I cut it and placed it in a vase on the kitchen bench. It was beautiful in a frankly genital way. Dark purple with a lick of yellow up each petal. And no scent at all. I think the scent of lilacs would make me retch now.
I’d always thought that this soft margin between winter and summer could never be cruel. But now I was as bitten by cruelty as the poet was. Spring is the time of hope. Of inspiring songs and rousing actions. Of possibility, of anticipation, of plans. People emerge from winter after tolerating autumn’s capricious start to the season, and know that if spring has arrived then summer isn’t far away. Every spring our local community has a picnic in the park nearby. Children have outdoor birthday parties. Spring is the time of action, of cleaning, of revolution.
Revolution. I thought a lot about the precise meaning of words now. And their sounds. Revolution is like the word revulsion. Disgust. Rejection. This morning I hadn’t yet faced breakfast, which would only be half a slice of toast, no butter (there was no question of eating one of those eggs in my pocket). The poets were right about one thing, ripeness is all, but I’d like to tell Mr. T. S. Eliot that his spring represented an insipid kind of cruelty compared to mine. A laughable cruelty. 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. It was spring when I’d had the first operation, giving me just long enough to recover by the end of the year and face my Christmas responsibilities, instead of languishing in bed as I’d have liked. Spring again when I discovered the operation hadn’t arrested the cancer. Further removal of body parts and intensive chemical treatment represented a Scylla and Charybdis between which I was pounded for another six months or so. Really, I would have preferred to row backwards, but Archie begged me to keep trying, my mother persuaded me, the fact of our two young daughters reproached me, and so I pushed on. And up until the last operation, when my body was sliced, sawed and prized open (the head this time), I still retained a scrap of hope.
But now the cruelest season had arrived again with an unmistakable finality. At least Mr. Eliot had his dry stones and handful of dust to look forward to.
Can you settle an argument I am having with my friend (we play golf together)? She says you should only do your grocery shopping with a list. That I waste time and spend more money without one. I always take my time and think about it, and it’s true I sometimes come home and forget that I needed lightbulbs or rice flour. But then so does she.
P.S. We are both sixty-five years old.
I’m sure that the incomparable Mrs. Isabella Beeton would have maintained that the efficient housewife never undertakes her grocery shopping without a list. It is said that impulse buying is curbed by taking a list. That a list prevents the unscrupulous vendor forcing unwanted goods on the customer. However, life is short. There’s a lot to be said for spontaneity. You might occasionally forget the lightbulbs but I bet you buy those dark chocolate Tim Tams when they’re on special, or extra tins of salmon when you already have stacks in the pantry. I bet your list-carrying friend does, too.
P.S. Mrs. Beeton was only twenty-eight when she died. Your friend might want to think about that next time she’s writing her list.
Home Economics was promoted to a science sometime in the 1970s. I never took the subject myself, already being domestically taught by my mother and grandmother. Both believed in the deep-end school of home training. And so my grandmother, who cared for me when I was a preschooler, simply pointed me in the right direction and I started to scrub, soak, mop and sweep along with her. When I was a bit older, my mother, Jean, whose specialty was the kitchen, took over. I had to whip, fold and poach (later stir-fry) with barely a lesson. Their theory was that I’d simply pick it all up, that as a female I would learn all this by osmosis. A ludicrous idea, one might think, but there must have been something in the osmosis theory, for I learned without blinking. I understood sewing, cooking, cleaning and knitting. By the time I reached high school and was forced to take a term of cookery, I realized there was nothing more to discover. Learning a subject like domestic science seemed as elementary as learning how to catch a bus or post a letter. Didn’t everyone just do these things? And by then I liked movies, books and music and couldn’t see much scope for that down in Mrs. Lord’s austere kitchens or Miss Grover’s sewing class.
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. Even the 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.
For Isabella Beeton, on the other hand, home management was a matter of martial discipline and political strategy, with the mistress of the house both the commander of an army and the leader of an enterprise. By the early twentieth century, housework was a matter of economics. The housewife was the linchpin of an autonomous economic unit. Then it became a science, and all that occurred within the home was accountable to clear logic and linear process. Making a batch of cupcakes was the same as distilling a chemical formula. Children given the right quantities of affection and punishment could be raised as successfully as a batch of scones at exactly 170 degrees centigrade for fifteen minutes. Not that domestic science meant a woman was a domestic scientist. That could never be entered on forms under Occupation.
Finally the home became a site. Housework, like everything else from surfing to jelly wrestling, has now been hijacked by theory. Whatever the present name for the subject is in the secondary school system, I bet it doesn’t include the word home. No doubt there are numerous research projects and dissertations under way right now on the house as locus, the discourses of vacuuming and the multimodality of the food processor.
Though perhaps not. It is women’s work, after all.
One morning, I was contemplating a list that I’d retrieved from the kitchen bench. I was still in bed, the same bed in which I had cavorted with my husband for the last dozen or so years and had the most tender and exciting sex of my life, though, I now realized, not nearly enough of it; conceived two children and borne one of them (the other came close, but stubbornly exerted her right to enter the world via hospital intervention); read innumerable books, many of them excellent, a lot of them trashy but wonderfully so; drunk countless cups of tea every Sunday morning while skimming the tabloid papers with an equal mix of cynicism and delight; and made notes on all sorts of things, including writing lists.
Lists were not essential to my life. Nothing would change now if I never wrote another, and I suspected that without them I might still have got things done. But this particular morning’s list was not for me, and I’d written it late the night before.
Put on washing
Feed scraps to chickens
Feed fish/mice (pond & tank)
Get girls up
Make lunches (not peanut butter for E)
Feed girls (don’t let D have malted milk on cereal again)
Remind E re homework sheet
Check D has reader, library bag
Hang out washing
Girls to school half hr early (choir practice)
Have shower (if poss!)
Make coffee, drink while hot (ha!)
I had only been writing this sort of list for the last year or so, since it became clear that certain tasks would need to be delegated. Until things were sorted out. That was the term we adopted to describe the future that yawned like crocodile jaws, deep and daunting. Compiling it was hard because it represented things I had been doing intuitively for years. What to put in and leave out? I’d placed it strategically under the pepper grinder late in the night. When Estelle and Daisy came in to kiss me goodbye the next morning, I was too groggy to tell if their hair was properly tied up, teeth cleaned. I murmured goodbye and raised my head to brush their cheeks with my lips. When I woke later there was a feather on the sheet, a dark brown one. I presumed they didn’t take their chickens to school.
As I reread the list I considered how Archie must have felt earlier that morning. Was he insulted or bemused, offended or grateful? I wondered if I should have stipulated the girls be dressed in their school uniforms, or reminded him about their hats. Then I wondered why I felt all that was so important. I got out of bed and threw it into the wastepaper bin. Archie probably hadn’t even noticed it.
I generally wake early, before the light has fully hatched. Just the day before, I had made a small pot of tea and taken a cup out into the garden. Some of the chickens were already quietly burbling to themselves. I went and sat in the cane chair under the umbrella tree nursing my tea and listening. I’ve always found the sounds of chickens to be immensely pleasurable. The five of them fussed and bickered on their way out of the shed as the light grew. Lizzie—Elizabeth—the smallest and most beautiful, was the first out, leading the foray into the sun. She was a Light Sussex, wearing black feathers over her white plumage like a lacy shawl, and she was bossy, instructing the others on the order they should leave the shed. The last to emerge was Kitty, dark brown to almost black on the tips of her wings. As far as I knew, every morning Kitty greeted the day the same way: a pause at the shed door, scratching the earth, a quick dart out a foot or two, a retreat to the door, another few feet, another retreat, before finally making a line for the feed tray on the other side of the run. Halfway there, Lizzie would always turn and peck her back, whereupon the ritual began again until something distracted one of them. Kitty was the last I acquired, though not the youngest, and poultry protocol insisted that, no matter what, this chain of authority remained.
I decided that if I had another life I could just study chickens. Only that morning sitting there, throwing the dregs of my tea over the fence (they all rushed to investigate: they were incorrigibly curious), I realized that despite having chickens for several years, I knew very little about them. The problem was that they were so easy, so compliant, and required minimal care. I had, I thought, taken them completely for granted. There were aspects of them I would never understand. Why, for instance, did Jane, an Australorp with magnificent black plumage, glossy and iridescent green in the sunlight, lay white eggs? Why, when I had reared most of them from chicks, did they still hesitate or even protest at being caught? Kitty would cuddle contentedly in bed with Daisy, but only for five minutes, after which she struggled to be free. Realizing that the hen preferred to roost at night, I finally had to coax Daisy into returning her to the rest of the flock, after which Kitty became pathologically timid. (And, as was the way with children, Daisy’s fierce desire to sleep with the hen every night evaporated. Some other animal obsession materialized. First the goldfish, and then, when she finally accepted that they weren’t amenable to cuddling, the mice: India, Africa and China. A few months back, Daisy was insisting that if she didn’t take China, her favorite, to school in her pocket every day, she or it would die.)
I tasted the smallest atoms of life in those few quiet minutes, drinking tea and waiting with the chickens before the rest of the world raised its head. I tossed them a handful of layer pellets. Kitty approached the fence and ate from my hand. The gentle prod of her beak in my palm. The contented cackling. Lizzie darted across and shoved her aside. I was gripped by a sudden urge to protect the smallest of my flock. I entered the shed. Despite the dust, the earthy pungency of the chicken manure, the remains of bones and shells and everything else they unearthed in their endless, restless 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. Some might regard that as stupid, but I thought it almost unbearably generous. A laying hen was so full of integrity, with all that devotion and focus in her life. And then, the egg itself, sitting sometimes in dirt, sometimes crusted with chicken shit, sometimes as clean and unblemished as a new cake of soap. But inside, more than complete; stuffed entirely with possibilities.
It struck me that morning how I should have taken the opportunity more often to regard and wonder fully at this corner of the garden, this ordinary aspect of backyard life. Too late now.
In fact, it was too early, but I went in to Estelle and Daisy anyway. In sleep their forms assumed a softness and delicacy that would dissipate once they woke. For a minute or two I drank in their innocence and purity. Then I placed the chickens carefully beside each of them. Estelle’s hands curled automatically around Lizzie; Daisy sat up with a start when she felt the tickling warmth of Kitty on her cheek.
“What’s up?” she said.
It wasn’t much past six o’clock, but I figured they would have to cope with a lot worse than being dragged early from their beds.
“I need to show you something very important,” I said.
Cuddling their chickens, they followed me into the kitchen, where I made them a malted milk each and sat them on their stools at the opposite side of the bench. The chickens settled into each lap with a few muted chirps. Switching the kettle on again and taking down the tea canister, I began.
“Making the perfect cup of tea is not something you’re necessarily going to learn by accident,” I said. “Although, as Mrs. Beeton says, there is very little art in making good tea. If the water is boiling and there is no sparing of the fragrant leaf, the beverage will almost invariably be good.”
“Who’s Mrs. Beeton?” Daisy said.
“Never mind,” Estelle said, sensing the importance of the occasion.
I made the tea while talking them through the process, streamlined for the twenty-first century, and taking into account local conditions. I used the small brown pot that was perfect for two cups, Irish Breakfast tea, and one of the white cups. I explained they would hear of things like warming the pot and the milk-first-versus-milk-later debate, and the metal-versus-ceramic-pot argument, which divided purists into polarized camps of Swiftian proportions.
“Swiftian?” Estelle asked. “What’s that mean?”
“Jonathan Swift,” I said. “Wrote Gulliver’s Travels, remember?”
She nodded. We’d read a children’s version of it together a couple of years back, when she was nine.
“He wrote about people called Big-Endians and Little-Endians,” I said. “All about which end you sliced your boiled egg open. Or something like that. Don’t worry about that now. We’ll do eggs later.”
They would only need to heat the pot on the coldest of days, I went on. Not much of a problem here, especially with global warming. Nor, I explained, did they need to worry about the one-for-each-person-and-one-for-the-pot rule. It would all depend on how strong you liked your tea, and, as they knew, I happened to like mine quite weak (they nodded; yes, they knew this), whereas others, especially those who took their tea with milk (Jean, their grandmother) might like it strong.
When the tea was made and poured, I placed it under their noses and told them to inhale deeply. I knew they wouldn’t want to take a sip. They sniffed and nodded when I asked them if they could detect the malty aroma.
Reading Group Guide
A freshly insightful, hopeful, and dramatic novel full of heart and life—told from the perspective of a household advice columnist, wife, and mother who is determined to finish a lifetime’s worth of tasks even though she doesn’t have a lifetime left to live.
The Household Guide to Dying is a moving, witty, and uplifting novel about Delia, who writes an acerbic and wildly popular household advice column. When Delia realizes that she is losing her long battle with cancer, she decides to organize her remaining months—and her husband and children’s future lives without her—the same way she has always ordered their household. Unlike the many faithful readers of her advice column—people who are rendered lost and confused when faced with dirty shirt collars—Delia knows just what to do. She will leave a list for her daughter’s future wedding; fill the freezer with homemade sausages, stews, and sauces; and even (maddeningly) offer her husband suggestions for a new wife. She’ll compile a lifetime’s worth of advice for her children, and she’ll even write the ultimate “Household Guide to Dying” for her fans. There is one item on her list, however, that proves too much even for “Dear Delia,” and it is the single greatest task she had set for herself. Yet just as Delia is coming to terms with this, an unexpected visitor helps her believe in her life’s worth in a way that no list ever could.
Imbued with Delia’s love for food, Jane Austen, clucking hens, and fragrant gardens, and interspersed with her secrets to making a pot of tea, removing wine stains from lace, and the ingredients to the perfect wedding cake, this is a gorgeously crafted novel that captures the reader—heart and mind—and expands our understanding of a meaningful life.
ABOUT DEBRA ADELAIDE
Debra Adelaide is the author of two previous novels in Australia including two novels, The Hotel Albatross, and Serpent Dust. She has worked as a researcher, editor and book reviewer, and has a PhD from the University of Sydney. She is presently a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Technology, Sydney where she lives with her husband and three children.
A CONVERSATION WITH DEBRA ADELAIDE
Q. Why does your main character, Delia, decide to write a household guide to dying in response to her impending demise?
Delia is a domestic advice columnist, and also the author of a series of successful how-to books, all called The Household Guide to the Kitchen, to the Laundry, and so forth. Pragmatic and super organized, when she realizes she is dying she believes the most useful (and possibly even fun) thing to do is to write a final guide in the series, one that has never before been attempted. Readers, however, might feel that Delia is also delaying confronting some of the issues associated with her impending death: writing the guide keeps her occupied but what else is she avoiding? I feel that she’s coping really well, if a little too manically.
Q. What is Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management? Did the fact that Mrs. Beeton died at the age of twenty-eight have an ironic resonance for you?
Oh yes, indeed. The Book of Household Management is a huge compendium of domestic advice and recipes, first published in 1861. Several things about Isabella Beeton intrigued me. Firstly that, contrary to what her name and reputation have suggested, she was not some staid old mouthpiece for conservative Victorian values, but an innovative, highly well informed (largely self educated) and entrepreneurial young woman. Her book introduced a level of professionalism to the domestic front, as well as a whole generation of homemakers to new recipes, ideas and knowledge about the culinary and domestic arts. And the irony of her early death is profound: for all her skill and knowledge she was unable to save herself from septicemia, and she died leaving two small children, one just a baby. Of course this resonated strongly with the idea I already had for my character, who also dies leaving young children.
Q. As you were working on this novel, your youngest son was diagnosed with leukemia. How did his illness affect the book?
My son’s diagnosis came when I was ready to commence intensive work on the draft I had written so far. Most of the story was sketched out, and I had written about 30,000 words. After his diagnosis I couldn’t look at it for over a year. It was impossible to find the time to write, but it was also unthinkable to return to a comic novel about a woman dying of cancer when I had looked the disease in the face. But after my son had returned to school and was living what approximated a normal life again, I finally summoned up the courage. I found I could do it, because I decided to tackle it in small pieces. However I know that the novel became rather sadder in parts as a consequence. The scene where Delia leaves the hospital after deciding to have no more treatment, where she views the pediatric oncology ward, was very much drawn from my experience. While my son’s illness intervened in the writing of this novel only temporarily, I know that if he’d been diagnosed with cancer (or if anyone close to me had) earlier then I would never have contemplated writing a comic novel about dying. But the character of Delia, her voice, the story were basically there well before this, and I eventually found the courage to face it, and then continue with it. Recently, I was being examined by a liver specialist as I have had anemia for several months and needed to have my liver investigated. Of course the topic of cancer arises in such situations (especially as you get older it seems to loom in the background of every medical complaint you have) and my response is usually dismissive, often jokey, but not because I am in denial or even insensitive (I hope!), rather because I absolutely don’t believe in worrying about such threats to your health when they are only vague, and usually unlikely. This doctor said to me, There’s nothing funny about cancer, and I know that this is true. On the other hand I also know that we retain our sense of humor at the most unexpected times.
Q. Delia goes in search of the girl who received her son’s heart after his death. What is she looking for by doing this? Do you relate to her need to find Sonny’s heart?
As the years have passed, Delia’s response to Sonny’s death has changed: at the time she was determined to cope by turning her back on the experience and the place – Amethyst – where they lived and he died, and by starting a new life with Archie. On the verge of dying she realizes this isn’t working, and when she returns to Amethyst it’s to try and hold onto the son she lost, for one last time. Compounding this is her long-term guilt over donating his heart – at the time she felt it was right; over the years she’s had doubts. And for her, the only way to reconnect with her son, however briefly, is with the girl who received his heart.
I’ve never experienced anything like this, but as a mother of course I do think about the sorts of choices we might have to make about things like this. The questions fueling my novel are in a sense very personal: How would I feel? What would I do? What would I say? Organ donation is also completely anonymous, and that anonymity is protected strongly by law. What Delia wants is some small recognition of her extraordinary gift, and the joy of seeing that this girl has survived, while her own son couldn’t. She wants to break through the anonymity that has stifled her for so long, which I can relate to. I would, if I could, like to stay in touch with the child, and its family, who may have received a gift of organ donation from my own family. There’s an extraordinary intimacy in such a gift, so it seems odd that both parties should be denied even the chance of any relationship. Of course, I rush to add that for those who need and want it, anonymity should exist and be protected. Not everyone is like me.
Q. Delia’s voyage—the writing of the guide, her desire to experience closure from a painful loss—can be seen as a spiritual one. Was this your intention?
I think her entire journey can be seen as some sort of metaphysical quest, though I’m not sure that spiritual is the right word. Unlike me, Delia is unreservedly pragmatic. While I would be happy to spend all my days in the life of the mind, by reading and writing and thinking about writing and reading; she thrives by doing practical things, and has no time for a spiritual life. When the novel commences she is in a state – ill, housebound where she is obliged to reflect on matters that she’s suppressed. Towards the end of the novel she says it is too late for religion, though she is surprised by thoughts of an afterlife and even a god (one with a great sense of humor!). But obviously her strong connection with the word Eternity is a giveaway: she does have a sense of the afterlife, it’s just that she’s denied it for a much of her life. Perhaps this is because of Sonny’s sudden death, which has also killed something in her.
In contrast, my spiritual beliefs are best described as a broad and undirected form of theism. I cannot accept that life simply ends at death, and feel that the spiritual dimension enriches our lives immensely. That said, I have no time for dogma and doctrine, and the terrible troubles in the word that are the result of religious prejudice and fervor. I was brought up in the Anglican church and still value its traditions and ceremonies, even if I can’t accept all its teachings. I love the church’s rituals, and I treasure the poetry of its language (before they ruined it by ‘modernization’).
Q. Parental guilt is a central theme. What are some of the types of guilt Delia experiences that are common to all parents, dying or not?
I think guilt is one of the least honored of parental feelings. Someone once told me that as a parent you’ll always feel guilty for one reason or another, so why not embrace the idea early on, instead of resisting it? Delia is guilty for being sick, for dying, for losing a child, for being an irresponsible parent, for being too caring or smothering, for not caring enough, for being estranged from her own mother, for being angry with her children, for not being angry or assertive enough, for swearing at them …. the reasons go on and on.
Q. How can a book called The Household Guide to Dying be a novel about life? And often funny, too?
Perhaps death in a way is the object of life — not that we tend to consider this until the very end (and not that I have an especially morbid nature). But in part the novel explores what it means to live, and how much living one can extract from ordinary, everyday existence, when the focus is sharpened by the threat of early death. And as for the humorous aspects of the book, I do have a quirky sense of the comic, and I wanted to see how far I could exploit that in fiction with this subject matter. In the end it wasn’t hard to write humorously about many aspects of the narrator’s illness and imminent death, in fact it seemed natural. Of course, I expect that the humor helps avoid the underlying issues, which are fairly grim.
Q. Delia comes up with some ideas that are quite unconventional, to say the least, in her pre-death planning. What are some of the more outrageous ones?It’s true: at times she tries deliberately to shock or unsettle people, including her family. At other times she is genuinely pushing an idea that she thinks is normal, but which strikes others as bizarre. She considers posing as a corpse (a pretty one) in a coffin for the cover of her proposed guide to dying; she orders her own coffin, then asks her family members to decorate it; she makes blood sausages from her own blood in a well-meant but misfired attempt to offer her family something essentially and uniquely hers before she is gone forever; she even tries to organize a new wife for her beloved husband. Fortunately, she relinquishes most of these nutty ideas before the end.
Q. Delia is known for her tart, witty responses to readers’ queries in her advice column. But she also provides a lot of solid information. How did you come up with some of her most useful and amusing household hints?
I made them up. It’s not that hard, although perhaps I do have more domestic capability than other people. And some of the advice is sound, despite Delia’s quirky attitude. For instance, the advice on how to boil a soft egg, or make a cup of tea. Years ago there was an odd page in one of the Sunday newspapers here, full of quirky home advice, though from readers, not from a columnist. I would often laugh out loud reading this even though it wasn’t meant to be funny. Correspondents would regularly write in, often panicked, saying things like, “Help, I’ve lost the recipe for my favorite ginger cake/butter biscuits/whatever – I’ve been making it for 20 years.” And I would laugh because I’d wonder, if they’d been making it for 20 years, how come they still needed the recipe? Another regular contributor would write in with hints on what to do with the weirdest bits of rubbish; for instance the empty plastic cartridge left when all the disposable razor blades were used up (good for soap dishes and under pot plants, apparently); or how to make a pie base from stale bread crusts (are we really that poor ?!). They also seemed to have the oddest names, and come from the most obscure places around the state. The queries would – to me – be so basic, and some of the responses so weird. I think that I stored that up and it came out in Delia’s voice. I think, too, that I was exploiting something I’ve detected in older people mainly women —which is a slight contempt for the domestically disabled coupled with a perverse refusal to pass on lore and advice. That is, the person who scorns your inability to produce a good sponge cake, but then won’t help you with it, as if that’s too much of a concession or something. (I hope I’m not becoming that sort of older person myself!)
Q. What kind of research did you do for this book?
Not a great deal of research actually. Research in fiction needs to be used sparingly, I find. I attended an autopsy some years back and wrote up very detailed notes on that, even though at the time I had no idea how the scene might fit into the novel. I researched some aspects of coffin manufacture. The weirdest — and saddest — research came quite unexpectedly: just when I finished the first complete draft of the novel, three people I knew died, two from cancer. In one week I attended three funerals. That was the sort of research I would rather not have done.
Q. The music of Elvis Presley is also prominent in this story. Is he a particular favorite of yours, or just an enthusiasm of your characters?
The richness and maturity of his voice always fascinates me. I think sometimes we forget that Elvis was a voice first, and a celebrity next. But I’m also slightly cynical about the cult of Elvis – and this comes out in the novel. And I’ll confess that I have, just as Delia, instructed ‘Always on My Mind’ to be performed or played at my own funeral, if possible. It’s a love song but appropriate, I think, full of tenderness along with the regret, and expressing a general feeling that while we don’t always do the right thing, we always intend to. I love that idea. It captures much of ordinary human yearning, our desire thwarted by our faulty natures.
Q. Delia claims that there is a connection between cleaning and creativity, which many women (and men) will be startled to hear. What connection does she see?
This to me is perfectly logical: cleaning and other domestic chores (like ironing) are totally mindless tasks, and that frees up the mind and the imagination. It could be sweeping leaves or chopping firewood or painting the fence. Or lawnmowing. Many writers advocate walking, which does kindle the imagination and is excellent for problem solving. But I think these other activities work too.
Q. When and how did you decide to become a writer?
When I was growing up there was no culture — around me at least — to suggest that writing, in any form, was a possibility. I never met or even heard of writers. Of course there were authors behind the books, but they had no personalities, no presence, and so weren’t real. I always read and always wanted to but, while you were expected to be a good reader, you weren’t expected to indulge yourself in reading, especially novels. Children who read tend to want to write but although I wrote (terrible adolescent poetry and painful diary entries) it never occurred to me to be a writer. My shift to becoming a creative, as opposed to academic, writer occurred on 29 May 1992, which was the day I received a letter advising me that I’d been rejected for an Australian Research Committee postdoctoral award. The rejection was due to an academic who had agreed to referee my project but instead criticized it, thus ensuring its instant death in the hands of the assessment committee. I remember thinking, Bastard. Okay, I’ll write that novel instead. Bastard. But I’ll show you ... Up late that night, I was still seething about it but also thinking about the novel I’d been planning when I experienced the first labor pains of my second child. My daughter, Ellen, was born several hours later, early the next morning. The novel, which became The Hotel Albatross, took a little longer to produce.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I don't know what I was expecting, but this wasn't it. This is a story of a woman, dying of cancer, and her way of dealing with it.... by writing a "how to" book with a guide to dying, and all that entails. Might sound a little "off-putting" and initially, maybe so, however I got swept into her life, and the twists and turns it made. I enjoyed the back and forth, as the chapters flipped from her past to the present. It was easy to follow, but kept my mind active. I could relate to Delia, first as a mom, (and all that we do to keep our households running), to wife, (and all we do to keep that end running), and our friends, and then dealing with death, (and yes, I'm dealing with the sentence of cancer as well). It's not a dark, hankie sopping, morbid novel, although there are some rather morbid topics, - how do you pick a coffin/casket? but it is enlightening, and will capture the imagination, and will capture your heart too. And oh, the ending.... but not really a goodbye. What a full story!
If you're afraid of death, in denial that you too will die, don't like talking about it, thinking about it, can't handle when other people die, then this is a book you should avoid--it will make you confront all those bits you hope to escape. This story is like a pair of well worn jeans, the softest flannel pajamas, a fresh pot of tea--it's lyrical but also combative--a bit like a terminal diagnosis perhaps. She does die--there is no happy ending in the Hollywood sense (for those of you surprised by the Titanic's demise as well) but there is lovely closure in many aspects of her life. She takes control of her dying (pointing out the differences between dying and death in a wonderful and accurate way) until she realizes that control is an illusion and relaxes into the process. It's a beautiful book, one that clearly understands the process of dying and the points of grieving the mundane to the profound along the way. A wonderful book for book clubs and discussions. Perhaps even a gift for the dying--I feel a great camaraderie with the lead, I think perhaps comfort and less aloneness might come with the gift of this story. Though the autopsy and organ donation parts might require skimming by the squeamish I think they're important to contemplate as parts of the whole. A great fiction to stand beside nonfiction titles: FINAL GIFTS, HOW WE DIE, DYING WELL and others. Take care to note though there is a child's death as well in this book which could be most difficult for some readers.
It's hard to believe that a novel about dying can be so funny, so sharp, and so truthful and moving at the same time. Delia is not a woman who is ready to go quietly into her own dark night - she meets the knowledge of her own impending demise with incredible strength and resolution, determined to do what she needs to do to deal with all the unresolved stuff from her past so that she can let go with some measure of acceptance. The truths that this book reveals are so ultimately simple and wise and as paradoxical as life itself: embracing life and love means embracing it all - fear, anger, and loss as well as the good stuff, for better or worse.
Although confronting and graphic at times, it's a gentle hymn to the underrated joys of domesticity and is filled with humour, warmth and sadness - just like life. Paula Grunset (Good Reading magazine)
Delia is such a wonderful character.Warm, funny, wise. As a reader I so wanted her not to die. Not to leave behind her husband, her children, her chickens. And as I approached the end I knew that she would and the saddest part for me as a reader is that I also knew I would no longer have her in my life. And I so wanted her to continue, to be part of my life. This is such a beautifully written book. Perfectly structured and with an amazing emotional pull. I cannot believe anyone would not be touched by this stunning book.
This is so much more than a book about a woman dying- It's a book about those times in our lives were we look back at who we were and who we have become. I found it a compelling and well written read. A worthy book to have been long listed for the 2009 Orange Broadband Prize for Ficion in the UK. The character Delia will resonate with you for a long long time. I urge you to read this novel- it will be one you will keep and share with others. I also recommend this as a future book club pick with lots of discussion possibilities.
I enjoyed this book enough as a light read. It was cute, I'd say. It had the possibility of being very dark, but instead was interesting and quick. I enjoyed the way the author traded off between memories and current time, and how practical the main character was. I felt she was very real and easy to relate to. I didn't particularily enjoy her articles, which I felt were slightly rude and detracted from the story, but I did enjoy her inner monologue and the way the author told the story of her first son. This is a good book to pick up, and it was well worth the time spent.
I was extremely disappointed in this book. I enjoyed Delia'a story of her early life and making peace with it. I found many of the other portions much too graphic, some even disgusting. I would think this book's appeal would be to a very small sector of the reading public. I usually pass along my books when I finish them. I can't think of anyone who would "enjoy" this. About the only thing I can think of to do with it, is throw it in the garbage.