#NovNov – You’ve Gotta Do What You’ve Gotta Do

Two novellas on Sunday, one nonfiction and one fiction – The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson (118pp) and The Standing Chandelier by Lionel Shriver (129pp).

I chose the title of this post based on the fact that both novellas deal with ‘unavoidable’ situations. In terms of Magnusson’s guide to ‘döstädning‘, also known as ‘death cleaning’, the unavoidable is death itself. It will find us all at some stage. In Shriver’s novella, the unavoidable is subtle – one of the key characters is forced to make a significant decision and regardless of what they choose, there is fallout (as I often say to my clients – “You don’t want any of this but of all of the choices available to you, which is the most tolerable?”).

Magnusson’s book was a disappointment. I was expecting something of an existential nature (I don’t know why!) but what I got was a very basic guide to how to clear out your home. There was nothing groundbreaking about the author’s suggestions – I think we all know how to sort clothes into ‘keep’ or ‘discard’ piles, and how to scan photos and documents to store electronically rather than retaining hard copies. That said, there was one helpful suggestion – put things that are meaningful to you, but are of no value to anyone else, in a box marked ‘throw away’ – this allows you to enjoy the contents while you’re alive, but your family will know it can safely be chucked when the time comes.

There was a little too much ‘throw it away’ for my liking, although I did have a good laugh when Magnusson suggested that it’s best to dispose of ‘dangerous’ items rather than leaving them for others to discover – “Save your favourite dildo but throw out the other 15.”

My parents downsized five years ago and got rid of so much stuff. I feel relieved that I won’t have to do the sorting. My parents-in-law are a different matter. Reading this book, I was reminded of when my sister-in-law told her them that when they were gone, she wouldn’t be going through items one-by-one but would hire a skip and just start filling it. As Magnusson very helpfully points out –

Do not ever imagine that others will wish or be able to schedule time to do what you have not had time to do yourself.

The Shriver met all my requirements for a ripping novella. The story features her trademark moral quandary, and sharp, darkly humourous dialogue.

It’s the story of Jillian Frisk and her best friend of decades, Weston Babansky. Jillian and ‘Baba’ had had a brief fling in the past but both realised they were better off as friends and tennis partners. Their time playing tennis is sacrosanct – three times a week, followed by long chats court-side, discussing everything from philosophy and relationships to recipes for crab cakes and Jillian’s latest craft project.

In fact, Jillian’s ‘projects’ are central to the story. When Baba becomes engaged to his girlfriend, Paige, Jillian presents them with an extravagant, handmade gift. I won’t say anything further about the plot, except that it brings up questions around loyalty and that old chestnut – can men and women ever be just friends?

Shriver’s descriptions are spare but speak volumes. Jillian has ‘…hair that you have to live up to…‘ and ‘…the kind of charm that wore off…‘. Baba recognises early in their friendship that Jillian prompted immediate reactions from others, saying, “You have a strong flavor… Some people just don’t like anchovies.” Baba does like anchovies (!) and Shriver captures the authentic dynamic of a long friendship, making Baba’s double-bind all the more vexing when it arises. It’s brilliant stuff.

Magnusson – 2/5
Shriver 4/5

11 responses

  1. I’ve had to do the clearing out this year after a relative died. It broke my heart not to do it properly but he’d been hoarding and we had to go down the skip route. I tend to be the opposite extreme (except with books!) and it made me determined to remain so. In fact, I’m planning a sort out this week!

    I’ve never Shriver, is that bad?

    • Books are also my weak spot. I’ve moved house a few times and each time it’s the books I curse.

      Shriver’s books are always engrossing but she’s controversial in her political beliefs and has said lots of insensitive and offensive things in the past (to the press and at writers festivals), so this turns readers off.

  2. I “downsized” when I repatriated (even though I went from a one bed flat to a much bigger two bed flat). I bought two suitcases with me! My other half bought half a freakin shipping container (which also included my books — around 8 boxes of them — two bikes and a couple of boxes of winter clothes, useless for me here and now all gone to charity!) This was just personal belongings, we didn’t bring furniture or homewares. I’m always staggered / amazed by the things people keep / hoarde. I’m not a material person and am known to be a “light traveller”.

    The Shriver book sounds interesting but I cannot separate my prejudice against her from her writing, so will probably never read it. I did love her earlier novels though, especially the Post-Birthday World.

    • Two suitcases is seriously impressive – not sure I could be that light (I do have some furniture that I’m a bit attached to – all given to me from grandparents).
      The Shriver book was excellent but I understand why you won’t go there. I have continued to read her books (for the moral problems they explore) and I read some of her writing in the press, purely so my algorithms don’t always favour the stuff I already believe (I read somewhere that it was important to follow eg. the politician you hate, to keep your news feed vibrant – not sure if it works but I do do it and sometimes shout at my phone as a result).

      • Good tip about breaking the algorithm. In the days when my partner and I bought newspapers we would get right-leaning and left-leaning titles because, as my partner would say, “it’s important to know what the enemy is thinking!”

  3. A practical guide, ha ha, never to be read by the very people who need to do the culling.
    But I have a variation on “one helpful suggestion – put things that are meaningful to you, but are of no value to anyone else, in a box marked ‘throw away’ – this allows you to enjoy the contents while you’re alive, but your family will know it can safely be chucked when the time comes.”
    I have (most of) that stuff in a box, but I also have a little notebook that explains why each item means something to me. Each time I’ve had to do a clean-up after a death, I’ve held odd things in my hands and wondered, why on earth did she have this?
    For example, I have a small ivory hair-comb, the sort of comb you wear in your hair if you do fancy stuff with your hair). It would shock my friends who like me are appalled by ivory hunting. Why have I got it? It was my great-grandmother’s and it’s the only thing I have of hers. Sure, chuck it out, but know why I had it!

  4. I love the quotes from Magnusson, even if the book does not live up to the title. There is a tv-series in Sweden on this subject. Maybe I should have a look? I have moved so many times, and moving is a good way of getting rid of things. Today, I have a rather limited house hold and there will not be too much to sort out. As for parents, well, that is another matter. My parents are more or less ok, although if they left it to me now, I would be able to get rid of a few more things. For my in-laws there is another matter. No sorting out there. Maybe that is why my husband is a ‘squirrel’ when it comes to these kind of things.
    I have only read We Must Talk About Kevin by Shriver, but it was very good. This novella by her sounds interesting as well.

  5. Didn’t know it was called Death Cleaning, but I guess that’s what I’ve been doing ever since I got back to my apartment. Death cleaning! Sounds horrible. LOL

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