If I'm honest I wasn't entirely sure what I would make of this book, I mean The Household Guide to Dying by Australian writer Debra Adelaide, did I really want to read this?
Mightn't it be mawkishly sentimental?
But it's on the Orange longlist and I'm doing my best to range across it as widely as I can before the shortlist next week. Not the remotest cat in hades chance of finishing all twenty given that I'm only seventy pages into Curtis Sittenfeld's 550 pager American Wife, plus the new Hilary Mantel has now arrived. Call me weak of purpose and faint of resolve, but I just couldn't stop myself opening Wolf Hall...just a few pages perhaps ...oh my oh my...watch this space.
I think it's fortunate that The Household Guide to Dying is a book which also gets off to such a flying start, because by the time I reached the tricky bits I'd already decided I was in for the home run. That said I had to read a couple of chapters with my eyes shut because, though this is fiction, it is more than close to the mark reality-wise and I felt it.
Even as I start to offer you the general gist (and please note I am avoiding terms like 'bare bones'...'skeleton of a plot') I think it highly possible I could put you off immediately when I tell you that writer Delia Bennet is facing her toughest assignment yet in her 'Household Guide' series.
In the spirit of Isabella Beeton the series has become a vade mecum for the twenty first century consumer but until now Delia has tackled the easy subjects. Home Maintenance, the Kitchen, the Garden even the Laundry have been best-sellers, but finding herself in the terminal stages of cancer Delia has decided it's time to confront this whole dying thing in the only way she knows how. So head on, eyes front and with openess, honesty, humour and hilarity Delia stares down this thing called death and starts on her final book to tell it like it is.
Interspersed is Delia's life story, quite how she has ended up in a happy family with the wonderfully laid-back Archie and two gorgeous daughters, and her endeavours to ensure her family's survival after her death in the face of Archie's 'indifference to the knitted fabric of the household.'
Delia frets at how best to hand over all the responsibilities of the family to a man who it now dawns on her may one day have to accomplish such gargantuan feats as planning his daughters' weddings without her there to guide on cake ingredients.
Which elements of Delia's past need to be sought out, revisited, and addressed make for compelling reading. There are mysteries to be unravelled, secrets to be told, past grief and losses to be examined and Delia will take her own time about this. Time may be the one thing she has in limited supply but these things can't be rushed and it was this slow almost langourous revelation that drew me in and kept me reading at times when, if I'm completely honest, I might have preferred not to.
Some of this book is heartbreaking, some may turn your stomach ever so slightly (at least it did mine) so yet another book that manages to combine comedy and tragedy and somehow pull it off. The ending is a magnificent exercise in letting go so prepare for that state of welled-upness to ambush.
Something unique has certainly been achieved here with a book that faces up to many of the death and dying taboos about things like coffins, post-mortems and a few other extraordinary issues which I won't divulge for fear of spoiling the dramatic effect. I also find it astonishing that halfway through writing the book Debra Adelaide also endured the trauma of her young son's diagnosis with leukaemia and thankfully successful treatment, all of which can only have honed her sensibilities to the subject. Any fears as the book was being written and expressed in the author's interview at the end, that the humour of The Household Guide to Dying might trivialise the subject, fade into insignificance when you consider the empathy this life-changing event must have given Debra Adelaide for writing this novel.
How interesting and diverse this Orange longlist read is proving to be but the vexing question now is who next?
Curtis? Hilary? Toni? Hilary? Marilynne? Hilary?