What a pity Finuala Dowling left teaching by the time I enrolled for my first year in studies for my degree in Languages and Literature. But, then again, I will have been marked rather strictly if she read any of my papers, particularly on poetry. But, then again, the school from which I graduated still has a pool of excellent and dedicated teachers. I can’t help thinking, though, that Ms Dowling has left her mark somewhere along the line. Satisfyingly, reader and writer, share Irish roots. Like her name, Finuala Dowling’s poetic prose is swan-like at times, rooted in the female voice.
There are strong biographical influences and elements in Finuala Dowling’s award-winning Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart, published by Kwela Books, an imprint of NB Publishers. Both the author’s parents were radio broadcasters, and in Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart, the protagonist, Margot, is a radio broadcaster. Once again, the author locates her story in Kalk Bay where she still lives with her daughter. Margot has a teenage daughter, Pia., and they share their home with an eclectic and colourful arrangement of characters, no less vulnerable and humane than they are.
Margot’s middle-aged lover, Curtis, may be every grown woman’s dream man, but he is no less prone to the idiosyncracies of the male species which causes much pain for their female partners. Then there is Margot’s eccentric brother known to the reader as Mr Morland. He is a psychic, but is prone to unhygienic habits which causes still more anguish for the female protagonist who is naturally inclined towards conserving her living space. Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart takes its name from the brilliant Zoe’s famously unorthodox self-help tome. Zoe is now senile, causing Margot still more anxiety.
Not to be outdone by this seemingly, close-knit, but typically fragile family, is Joylene, aptly named, as Zoe’s help-meet. She may not be a qualified frail care nurse, but her heart tells us that she is practising her vocation while always preoccupied with her own economic uncertainties which are a consequence of historical inequality in the Cape region. She must travel reasonably long distances to be at Zoe’s side. But, when she is there, she over-extends herself to the point of invasion. But, troubled by this, Margot is aware that Joylene truly means well.
Pia is the product of Margot’s failed marriage with Leroy, a self-centred man-child who is always recklessly down on his luck, earning his keep as a stand-up comedian. His metaphorical tale towards the story’s end is a gem and one well worth quoting at a dinner party or barbecue. Needless to say Margot must balance her own private life and thoughts with her family and professional life. She is self-conscious of her image as a radio broadcaster, plagued with guilt over the treatment of her senile mother, all at sea over her relationship with Curtis and concerned about her daughter’s emotional well-being.
The book’s chapters are remarkably short, but there is a certain metronymic ebb and flow to it, well-crafted and continuously shifting the point of view and narrative arcs. The natural landscape and domestic and social settings also coincides well with the characters’ thoughts and actions. it is familiar ground for any reader who knows the False Bay area of the Cape well, but the narrative is descriptive enough for the first time visitor who needs to re-imagine these settings. Temporally, the story spans about two and a half years, but fleeting reflections from the protagonist set the clock back. While faced with dilemma’s on how to deal with life’s curve balls, there are always timely reminders from Zoe’s eccentric Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart to fall back on.
Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart was awarded the M-Net English category prize in 2012. No stranger to literary excellence and reward, Ms Dowling was awarded the more prestigious Ingrid Jonker prize for her début collection of poetry, I Flying, and the Olive Schreiner Prize.
While Dowling’s work seems to be deeply personal, sensitive and sensible readers can dig deep into their own lives and relate personally to this novel. For me, there is the unresolved issues of the relationship with the mother and how to deal with it in more challenging times, juxtaposed against her own ageing. It matters not whether you are a man or a woman. And while my mother is still well and truly in her prime as an elderly woman, I am also drawn to the inevitable conclusion of earthly life. What happens after one family member has departed? Is a void left when she goes? How do the remaining members cope? Such thoughts are universal, but this fictional journey ends with the promise that no matter what happens, the soul will cope.
As I ended my reading of this touching family drama, I had one regret. I ended my reading far too quickly to savour every last page. I was reading Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart in the bath and the water was getting cold.