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.


Bianca Nogrady, The end: The human experience of death (Review)

Bianca Nogrady, The end book coverHave you thought about your death? About how and where you want to die? These are the questions Australian science journalist Bianca Nogrady asks us to consider in her recent book, The end: the human experience of death. I’m not a morbid person, but when Nogrady contacted me to ask whether I’d consider reviewing her book, The end, it didn’t take me long to say yes. Like Nogrady I did witness, a couple of years ago, something I would call “a (pretty) good death”. That I felt it was so, intrigued me. I was therefore interested to read what Nogrady had to say.

And what she had to say was fascinating from beginning to end. In her introduction, she says:

This book could just as easily have been Everything you wanted to know about death but were afraid to ask. Death is fascinating, compelling, and it consists of much more than simply the end of a biological life-form. In seeking to understand death, we are seeking to understand life.

The rest of the book is structured logically according to the sorts of topics we are likely to ask about, starting with why we die, and then moving on to issues like defining death, where, when and how we die, spiritual and out-of-body experiences, and religion. Nogrady looks at these issues from all the likely points of view –  medical, sociological, psychological, philosophical, legal and ethical. She organises her information well, and the chapters (and subchapters) flow very naturally from each other.

So far, I have probably made it sound like a well-organised rather dry read – but that’s not how it is. Not only did Nogrady do a lot of secondary research (as the Notes at the end attest) but she also interviewed a lot of people. As a result, the formal information garnered from her research is supported by people’s stories, which also add colour and life to the facts. Many are of course sad – we are talking death after all – but this is not a sad book.

The most complicated section of the book is the second chapter on “Defining Death”. Nogrady takes us carefully through the different “definitions” – specifically, cardiac death and brain death (which, I learnt, can be further subdivided into “whole brain death” and “brain stem death”). She shows how the definition issue has been complicated by medical advances enabling us to keep the body alive and, of course, by the organ transplant process. Royal North Shore Hospital’s Intensive Care Specialist Dr Ray Raper suggests that death is:

a continuum; a graded box with one end as ‘being alive’ and the other end as ‘being dead’ … If you look at the domains of the transition between life and death, they’re spiritual, functional and structural and they’re biological, and the most important ones are the functional ones.

Death, in other words, is a process. If your fingernails are still growing when you are in the coffin, then, says Arizona State University Professor of Philosophy Joan McGregor, the questions needing answers relate to what are we preserving and why do we value it. I’ll leave this discussion here because there is no single solution – or not at present anyhow. This is murky ground indeed, but Nogrady manages to traverse it with clarity. I will probably have to read the book a few times though for the concepts to stick!

She also discusses euthanasia, teasing out misconceptions. She explains the differences between physician-assisted suicide, voluntary euthanasia and terminal sedation. She also explores the rise in palliative care as a profession, covering related issues like death doulas and volunteer workers in palliative care hospitals (or hospices). And of course she talks about near-death experiences, and those death-time phenomena that science can’t explain such as clocks stopping, machines behaving erratically, and deathbed visions.  The final chapter discusses faith and belief. Death is cultural, but, as she discovered, there is as much similarity as there are differences in end-of-life rituals.

It’s a funny thing to say, I suppose, but this is an enjoyable book. It’s neither superficial nor so detailed that you get bogged down. There is a lovely balance between expert opinions and anecdotes. I can imagine reading it again – or parts of it. It’s a shame, though, that there isn’t an index, which seems to be common in non-fiction books aimed at a general market. I guess it’s all about cost.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeIn her epilogue, Nogrady returns to her own experience, to how the death of her grandmother had caused her to want to better understand death. Writing the book, she says, made her think about “the value of planning, or at least thinking about how we want to die”. Death is, after all, a “one-way journey”. We do it alone, and it may well be, she argues, our best chance “find out who we are at the core”. One man who spent a long time thinking about his death, because he had a degenerative, terminal disease, was Australian public intellectual Donald Horne whose last book, written with his wife Myfanwy, was Dying: A memoir. He wrote:

My final drifting away, via a morphine dose, I would want to be among my memories, with Myfanwy whom I love holding my hand.

Think about your death, plan for it, is Nogrady’s final message to us. If you’re ready to take up her challenge, The end would be a good place to start.

Bianca Nogrady
The end: The human experience of death
North Sydney: Vintage Books, 2013
ISBN: 9781742752051

(Review copy supplied by the author)