Monday musings on Australian literature: Fiction about death and dying

Today’s Monday Musings is more personal than these posts usually are. Ten days ago, the last aunt of my aunts and uncles died. She’d been failing for some time, really, but she fought death to the end. Indeed, when we were in her house last week starting that awful job of clearing a house, we were told we needed to find five library books. We found four but where was the last? We searched all the likely places but to no avail – and then it came to light. She’d packed it in her hospital bag. Just hours before she died, in a state described as “gravely ill”, she went to hospital and took a book, of course! This got me thinking, once again, about the role of literature in our lives – and, particularly, what we can learn from reading.

So, what have I learnt about death and dying from books? I’ve read several non-fiction books – mostly non-Australian, but one, Bianca Nogrady’s The end: The human experience of death, is by an Australian and I’ve reviewed it here. These books have been interesting, but they tend not to get to the heart of things. For that, think, we need fiction (or, poetry, but I’m limiting my discussion here to fiction). Learning, though, is perhaps not quite the right word. Experience might be better, because when we read fiction, we don’t so much “learn” facts, as “feel” or “experience” the emotions and ideas being shared. A memorable dying scene for me comes from English writer Penelope Lively’s Moon tiger. Claudia is seized by joy and wellbeing at the sight of the sun catching raindrops on trees, sending out sparks of colour, and then:

The sun sinks and the glittering tree is extinguished. The room darkens again. Presently it is quite dim; the window is violet now, showing the black tracery of branches and a line of houses packed with squares of light. And within the room a change has taken place. It is empty. Void. It has the stillness of a place in which there are only inanimate objects: metal, wood, glass, plastic. No life. Something creaks; the involuntary sound of expansion or contraction. Beyond the window a car starts up, an aeroplane passes overhead. The world moves on. And beside the bed the radio gives the time signal and a voice starts to read the six o’clock news.

Maybe it’s just me … but I found this sense of the person being there one minute and then gone the next, and of life continuing regardless, quietly powerful. It has framed my ideas of dying ever since, I think.

Fiction about death and dying tends to deal with three broad aspects: fighting or rejecting death, reflecting on it, and accepting it. Most books, naturally, encompass two or three of these aspects. Anyhow, here is a small selection of Australian novels that deal with death in some way, that don’t simply have deaths “in” them but tackle in some way the meaning or implication of death. I’ve listed in alphabetical order by author:

  • Peter Carey’s The chemistry of tears (my review) tells the story of two people – a contemporary museum conservator who is devastated by the loss of her (secret married) lover and a 19th century father who commissions an automaton to entertain his consumptive son. Grief, and how to live with it, underpins this novel, though it explores many other issues too.
  • Brooke Davis’ Lost & found (my review) was inspired by the untimely, freakish death of her mother. Its three characters, a young girl and two old people, are all facing the death of a significant person and end up on a quest together searching how to live with loss – something we all face at least once, and mostly many times, in our lives.
  • Helen Garner’s The spare room is an uncompromising novel about a woman caring for a friend with terminal cancer. The friend is fighting her prognosis, including trying some alternative treatments that seem to be having no beneficial effects whatsoever, though the friend maintains the faith. The narrator – significantly called Helen – becomes increasingly frustrated with her friend’s inability to accept the facts, and finds it increasingly difficult to maintain her caring role. It’s a confronting story. I admire Garner’s honesty in presenting a story that is not pretty.
  • Hannah Kent, Burial Rites bookcover

    Courtesy: Picador

    Hannah Kent’s Burial rites (my review) was inspired by the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman executed in Iceland. The book takes place between the time when Agnes is convicted and sentenced and when the sentence is actually carried out. Kent explores the reactions of people to Agnes, and Agnes’s own sense of who she is. Death hangs over this novel, in the way it forces people to confront mortality, their own values, and justice.

  • David Malouf’s The conversations at Curlow Creek is set in the 1820s and concerns the conversations that occur between a military officer and an arrested bushranger who is to be executed in the morning. It’s about the connections made between the two men, between the captor’s reflections on his own life and the condemned man’s concerns about death, God and forgiveness. It’s a long time since I read this book, but it has a mesmerising quality, a sense of grace, that has stuck with me.
  • David Malouf’s Ransom was inspired by the section of the Iliad which chronicles Achilles’ revenge killing of the Trojan prince Hector and Priam’s visiting Achilles to ask for his son’s body back. The story plays out much the way it does in the original, except that Malouf’s Priam does attempt to cut through the brutal, revenge-fuelled pattern of behaviour to something more humane. I am always attracted to works which question the revenge code.
  • Marcus Zusak’s The book thief (my review) is quite different altogether. A Holocaust novel, it is about state-sanctioned death. It is also, and some reviewers find this a little twee, narrated by Death, who is fascinated by what defines humanity. He concludes that there is no simple answer, that humans are capable of wondrous things and of heinous things. Zusak takes that idea that it is death which defines life, which gives it meaning, and runs with it in a pretty audacious way.

Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin’s book, The novel cure, includes dying as one of the “ailments” they deal with. Their focus of course, given their therapeutic goal, is on literature “which consoles and stills, while gently encouraging acceptance”. However, what I like about the books I’ve listed here is the way they look at wider issues – from managing grief to how the presence of death helps us understand humanity. I’m reminded of a favourite line from Marion Halligan’s novel, The fog garden, which was inspired by her grief over her husband’s death. She wrote “read a wise book and lay its balm on your soul”. Amen to that!

I’d love to know if you have any favourite books about death.


20 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Fiction about death and dying

  1. I’m sorry to hear about your aunt—it’s sad when it’s the last of a generation, like the closing of a door. But what a beautiful quote from Penelope Lively! I’ve copied it to keep and re-read.

  2. A woman after my own heart, heading to the hospital with a book in her bag! I hope you and the rest of the family are doing ok.

    The Lively passage is beautiful. I can’t say that I have any favorite books about death because they tend to be about so much more, don;t they? I can say one I read not long ago, The Buried Giant by Ishiguro has stuck with me for quite a few months now.

  3. One of the ‘best’ – in this case comforting because thoughtful, clear-eyed yet moving – books I’ve read about death is the short account of her own mother’s death by Simone de Beauvoir, ironically titled “A Very Easy Death”. From Australian writers, I too can recommend Malouf’s “Ransom”, a fabulous book in which as you say in your last post, Priam’s going to his son’s killer’s (Achilles’) tent to beg for the return of Hector’s body is one of the most powerfully emotional and imagined moments in modern writing – a Shakespearean moment in which Achilles imagines that the supplicant coming to beg mercy from him is not old Priam but Achilles’ own father, whom he last saw ten years earlier before setting sail for Troy. One other fine Australian book dealing with illness and confrontation with the prospect of death is Inga Clenndinnen’s “Tiger’s Eye” (Scribner), a very different book from de Beauvoir’s but its equal in power for empathetic intelligence.
    Always provoked (in the best way) by your posts.
    John Clanchy

    • Thanks John, very much. I haven’t read that de Beauvoir. But, I have read Tiger’s eye. I was focussing on fiction here, but you are right about how clear and empathetically Clendinnen teases out the issues she confronted. It’s a book that keeps popping up, and that I would love to find time to read again.

  4. What a wonderful story – as an avid library user, I particularly appreciated the fact it was a library book she popped in her bag. I’m trying to think about novels which are about death as such though as you say it features a lot in novels. Its not an easy topic for an author is it – its not exactly an experience they will have ever had personally is it? I’ve read some particularly memorable death scenes (the one in Madame Flaubert for example as well as Old Goriot) but nothing which really discusses the nature of death

    • Ah yes, nice point re the library book Karen. (The other nice story about my aunt, a musician by training, is that she hated to think about death but when she started to confront it 2-3 years ago the thing she focused on was the music for her funeral. We may not have a proper will, but we had darned fine music to send her off with.)

      I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t read any Flaubert, but I’ve certainly read some very memorable death scenes, starting perhaps with Beth in Little Women!

  5. A beautiful post. Thank you for sharing. I recommend The Household Guide to Dying which I found simultaneously macabre and moving. You might also like to add The Young Widow’s Guide to Home Improvement …

    • Thanks Justine. I had those two in my head, and nearly mentioned them as books I haven’t read! Then I thought, this post is getting too long and I’ll leave them for someone else to mention! I’m glad you did – I need to read them, particularly the Adelaide I think.

      • Sorry for your loss. I hope to have a library book “on the go” when I go! I have the Helen Garner and David Malouf books so I will try to read at least one of those before the year is out. I think Tolstoy’s Death Of Ivan Illich is the most powerful death literature I can think of while Chekhov’s answer to it, Ward Number 9 is just as good. Larkin’s Aubade and his Ambulances are powerful poems about the fear of death.

  6. A post that has many resonances for me. Thanks, Sue, and please accept my sympathy for the loss of your aunt and, as you say, the door closing on a generation. This year, 2015, has seen so many deaths of relatives and close friends that I can hardly find the words to express its impact on me, not to mention more famous figures or the loss of my partner and soul mate only two months ago. I too have found some solace in literature, fiction and nonfiction. The book I’m reading just now is an English translation of Five Seasons, a novel by the Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua, which I’ve read before but not at all with the same understanding. His depiction of a man who’s spent time looking after a dying wife and how he deals with her death is beautiful and true. We read things so differently when life turns a corner.

    • Thanks Sara. I thought of you as I wrote this post and hoped it wouldn’t be painful or crass. We sure do read things differently after experiencing big changes, I agree. And it can make re-reading a deepening experience.

  7. Thanks for this lovely & poignant post, Sue, & I’m sorry about your auntie. Susan Wyndham, on losing her mother (who I think had been a single mother), was inspired to put together ‘My Mother, My Father’. Maggie Mackeller’s ‘When It Rains’ was a very sad, fragile but hopeful book. I’ve only ever known her through her writing, and it was strange to read how her husband, who had featured in her academic writing, came to such a devastating conclusion in this one.

    • Thanks Jess. I’m so glad this post has been appreciated. Funnily enough, have have just returned from an overnight getaway with a friend, and I delivered to her a birthday present from my Mum. The present was Maggie Mackeller’s second book! I remember her being interviewed when her first one came out but had completely forgotten it. SImilarly with Susan Wyndham. So many interesting books out there on this issue – which I guess is not surprising since it’s really the most confronting one we face, isn’t it – the death of people close to us.

  8. Aunt Alison’s bringing her book (an impractical library book at that!) is a wonderful story. Oh and I love that quote from Penelope Lively. The car starting up and plane flying overhead really remind us that death is a blip in time moving forward. I think that my favorite book about death and the grieving process is The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

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