Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 12, 2009

The Household Guide to Dying (2008), by Debra Adelaide, read by Heather Bolton

I’ve tried, I’ve really tried to engage with this book, but I took it back to the library with 4 CDs unheard because I really didn’t want to spend my time listening to any more of it. I know that there are others who think highly of it, not least my favourite British blogger dovegreyreader but I was bored witless by it.  Instead of a pleasant distraction from daily commuting, I found myself driving to school barely listening at all, motivated only spasmodically to continue until I found out why there was a discrepancy in the number of children Delia seemed to have, and what she was dying from…

Sometimes, when I browse the women’s mags at my hairdressers, I am reminded of the dichotomy between working mothers and the stay-at-homes. To those of us in the workplace with families grown up long ago, the passionate arguments in favour of one side or the other and the hostility between them seem bizarre, but this book is firmly in praise of the domestic arts, such as can only be practised by stay-at-home mums.

Household Guides to anything don’t interest me, so I wouldn’t know whether the genre is ill-adapted to the author’s sometimes creepy interest in death or not. It was the section on autopsies that finally decided me: eject this one from the CD player in the car and insert Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I’m not squeamish, not at all, but on top of the author’s enthusiasm for laundry (sexy? oh, come on!) and coffins (who cares what they’re called?) it was beyond tedious.  Domestic goddess? Oh please!

I was fed up with the book by then anyway. It wouldn’t matter so much in a book where I could skip pages, but the cataloguing of each topic was uber-tedious in an audio-book.  When it came to the autopsies I jumped from track to track but she was still working her way through the internal organs when I got to Track 24 and that was enough for me.

But don’t let my perverse opinion sway you; this book is immensely popular, and some ANZLL members loved it.  Check out this interview with Debra Adelaide and see what you think.

Postscript: Serpent Dust

On the strength of my doubts about the Household Guide, I resurrected Serpent Dust, also by Debra Adelaide, from the bookshelves.  I read it back in 1998 so I had to retrieve my reading journal to remember what it was about. I thought it was a terrific book, and quite unlike anything I had read before.  This is what I wrote…

Written in many voices, the narrators tell the story of the first years of settlement at Sydney Cove, but is primarily the story of how smallpox devastated the indigenous Yura people of the Sydney area. Djarra is an Aboriginal woman, different because of her white hair, who unwittingly carries the disease to her people.  I’m a bit uneasy about this, not least because the disclaimer calls it a work of fiction based on historical sources.  So which bits are which?

Although the narrative seems disjointed in the telling (reflecting the separate but intersecting lives of black and white, free man and convict) the story finally comes together, revealing the treachery of the convict Cowper, the stupidity of the Surgeon General, and the wickedness of Twineham the vicar who sleeps with Djarra and then sends her away when she is pregnant.  Such an evil thing to do, with her people all dead and gone!

There’s some very fine writing.  I’m not to know, not being Aboriginal, but it seems to me that Adelaide has captured brilliantly some of the cultural gulf between the peoples.  The bewilderment of Djarra describing white clothing, social organisation and roles is cleverly and powerfully done. Adelaide asks some interesting questions.  What would it have been like if the settlement has been attacked in its early stages, when it was too disorganised to survive?  Or if the smallpox had not devastated the Yura? What then?

The unasked question is, was it deliberate? Not of Governor Phillip’s doing, but others’? It seems unlikely, simply because authorities and individuals could not have known that Aborigines had no resistance to such diseases.  So it seems to me, but it doesn’t seem any less evil for being accidental.

So, if like me, you were unimpressed by the Household Guide to Dying, don’t give up on this author. Hopefully, it’s just a phase…

Author: Debra Adelaide
Title: The Household Guide to Dying
Publisher: Bolinda Audio
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library

Author: Debra Adelaide
Title: Serpent Dust
Publisher: Vintage, 1998
ISBN: 9780091837006
Source: Personal copy


  1. Haha Lisa, now I’m even more intrigued to read it! I must say that when it came out I wasn’t sure about reading it, and didn’t, but after reading this one I’m thinking there may be more than meets the eye, that it may be layered.


    • You could well be right…I only listened to it as an audio book on the daily commute and I may have missed whatever subtleties it had. But I haven’t been tempted to try it again…


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: