Inter-review of The man who loved crocodile tamers by Finuala Dowling

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I have always loved Finuala Dowling’s novels, some of which I have reviewed in the past. This one is no exception. Dowling has the ability to draw the reader into her world, which is confronted with harsh realities but which remains whimsical and infused with an air of longing. Longing for what, exactly, isn’t always defined. In previous novels, such as Home-making for the down-at-heart, the longing was for a release from domestic burdens, or at least a reprieve from them for a while. In this novel, the longing is to create an honest-as-possible memoir of the writer’s father, which the writer has to weave from a few strands of facts and almost-forgotten family stories. I use the word “writer” rather than “author”, as Dowling clothes her persona in the creation of a fictional character: an aspirant writer whose day job is to be abused by disgruntled customers in a call centre.

The man who loved crocodile tamers is a strongly stitched patchwork of events in the life of Paddy Dowling, Finuala Dowling’s father, interspersed with extracts from the “writer’s” personal diary. Born and educated in England, Paddy Dowling considered himself Irish and dropped his much-hated appellation, “Dick”, as soon as he could. He meets and falls in love with a crocodile tamer, Koringa, at a circus and proposes marriage. He gives her his grandmother’s much-prized ring and becomes engaged to her. The crocodile tamer becomes a motif throughout his life, but to say more would spoil the story.

After many different jobs in England, he tries to escape the impending Second World War, as his father was killed in the first one. Paddy emigrates to South Africa, but the war finds him anyway. He enlists to become a mine detector. The role exposes him to the most traumatic experiences of battle, and he develops severe PTSD as a result. When the war is over, Paddy becomes a BBC presenter and marries the woman he met in South Africa, Eve van der Byl. In spite of his success as a producer, Paddy aspires to even greater fame. He longs to be an acclaimed author or a playwright. Almost in contrast to Paddy, his wife effortlessly becomes the well-known author, actress and radio personality, and is productive and successful. Paddy finds it difficult to adjust to domestic life and the many responsibilities this brings, especially when children arrive with alarming frequency.

Dowling’s novels seem to be inspired by the harsh realities she encounters in real life. Dealing with a parent with Alzheimer’s is an example in Home-making for the down-at-heart. In this novel, Dowling makes sense of her father’s life, finding the reasons behind his difficult behaviour in a large family.

As someone who writes and loves literary biography myself, I was especially intrigued by the way Dowling approached her telling of the story. Dowling performs a delicate dance between fact and fiction through creating the writer as a separate persona from herself. Dowling’s novel is compelling and profound. Her use of language to express deep insights is remarkable and one of the reasons I love her novels. I believe that her writing is so powerful because it is etched in painful reality. Deep truths are always born of profound experiences.

Here are a few memorable quotes:

“I edge towards an opening sentence. Immediately Doubt is there with her raised eyebrow.” (14)

“Don’t mistake a woman for a blank page when she is, in fact, the pen.” (70) (My favourite!)

“I listen sympathetically. Even at the pitch of desperation, callers hope an author will take over the miserable strands of their lives and knit them together into some kind of shape.” (190)

“Doubt looked at me almost tenderly. She was wearing dungarees. Is she even Doubt anymore?” (258)

Q and A: Finuala Dowling talks to Janet van Eeden about The man who loved crocodiles

  1. Finuala, can you explain how you made the decision to become an anonymous character in your novel, even though the story is about your actual family?

Right from its inception, the novel contained a character who would exist in relation to Paddy the same way I exist in relation to my father: a daughter who feels a particular sympathy towards him because she, too, is an aspirant writer. I couldn’t make this daughter “Finuala Dowling” because my life contains too much detail: it would have gone head-to-head with all the details in Paddy’s life, and I’d have ended up distracting the reader from the book’s real focus, which is Paddy – his longing to be a creative writer, his battle with PTSD and the overwhelming demands of fatherhood. It felt right to put Gina on a par with Paddy – both struggling, unpublished authors – and for the reader to see that Paddy helps Gina finish her manuscript. In the first draft, we only saw Gina through Belle’s eyes. That didn’t work: it didn’t drive home the near-insurmountable obstacles faced by any author. At the eleventh hour, I created the diary entries that readers of my novel are now familiar with.

  1. Although your “anonymous” character as “the Writer”, Gina, is a worker in a call centre, I felt a bit like a detective trying to work out which elements of the character were yours and which were Gina’s. Did you make a conscious decision about how much of yourself to reveal, or did the character become a separate being entirely and dictate her own journey?

I was quite conscious of what I was doing and of the similarities and differences between us. Gina is my age (born early 1960s), and I gave her my reading and podcast-listening habits, my diary-writing habit and all my feelings as a writer – the despair, occasional exhilaration, doubt. When criticism comes, the heartbreak. The blessed moments of inspiration. You’ll notice that Gina has very little other life. Where are the lovers, where are the holidays; where is travel, friendship, leisure time? She never goes anywhere! I axed everything so that all that was left was writing and the appalling job of answering calls from disgruntled or abusive customers. That’s partly a metaphor (any job a writer has to do to support their writing feels like being a call centre operator), and partly based on a job I did have which was public-facing and involved placating irate people.

  1. Your story is based on the real life of your father, Richard Dowling, a BBC presenter and aspiring playwright who later married your mother, Eve van der Byl, a radio personality and author herself. Because I remember listening to Eve van der Byl on the radio when I was very young, I assumed the number of children they had and other details of their lives were also true. I did begin to wonder, however, when the family size grew alarmingly in your novel. Did you really have so many brothers and sisters? Or did you choose elements of the siblings you have and include them in a number of characters?

We really were a family of eight, four brothers first, followed by four sisters. At one point, my agent tactfully suggested reducing the number of children that Paddy and Vandy had, but I felt the sheer size of the family contributed materially to Paddy’s state of mind, and had to be kept. I changed all the names of the children except Patrick’s. Some quirk or passion or loveable aspect of my siblings’ personalities was distilled into each of Gina’s. Once again, a novel that drew directly on a supporting cast of eight remarkable people, each with a lifetime of extraordinary events and achievements and plot twists behind them, would just buckle under its own weight.

  1. One of the sayings that has sustained me through much of my own biographical writing has been, “Never let truth get in the way of a good story.” I believe that finding the essential integrity of your characters is more important than exact details about the story you tell. In this novel, you tell your father’s life story with great detail, from his earliest childhood after the loss of his father in the war, to his schooling and subsequent visits to France, where he encounters the crocodile tamer who haunts him through the rest of his life journey. How much of this story is based on fact, or did you use the whiff of fact to inspire the embroidery of his life?

My father’s loss of his own father in WWI, and his education at Ratcliffe College, with holidays spent in France because his mother didn’t want him around while she took lovers, are all based on truth or something passed down to me from my mother. If his self-reporting in the school magazine is to be believed, he really did hop from job to job as I have him doing – though I actually put him in the Nottingham lace factory, whereas my mother said he was merely threatened with that eventuality. He really was engaged to Koringa, the crocodile tamer, and she really did send all his love letters to my mother and sue him for breach of promise. In real life, she didn’t arrive at the church – she was paid off beforehand. He probably met her when she was with Boswell Wilkie in South Africa in the 1950s, but that would have ruined my story – or meant no story at all. I needed him to fall in love exactly as he did in the book, as a 12-year-old boy – to me, that fiction feels absolutely true. He suffered from terrible nerves all his life, and here was a girl who fearlessly put her head inside the jaws of a crocodile! I made up the fact that he became friends with circus people. The whiff of truth for that was that my father always took us to the circus, and backstage afterwards I once saw him talking to a clown in a happy, confiding, intimate way that made me think: my father is at home with these people. That anonymous clown from the 1960s became Cupo. My father’s PTSD existed as a fact – we saw it – but the actual incidents in WWII in the Italian campaign that set it off, I had to imagine with the help of existing memoirs of that period.

  1. I used to write short columns for The Witness and The Sunday Independent which were always inspired by some near-disaster I’d encountered while trying to navigate domestic life, and I’d turn them into humorous anecdotes. It comforted me to think that the daily trials of life weren’t pointless if I could get a good story out of them. Although your novels aren’t comedic in their essence, is this how you work, too?

I write because there is something I don’t understand, or something that is haunting me. I write to find consolation. I write to discover in things I once found distressing or even unbearable, a beautiful pattern and shape. I write out of love for the people who inspire me. I write to uncover the sublime that rests inside the ordinary tasks and experiences of every day. I write to make my readers smile or even laugh. I write to keep my readers company. I write so that I can say aloud what I’ve been secretly thinking.

I write because there is something I don’t understand, or something that is haunting me. I write to find consolation. I write to discover in things I once found distressing or even unbearable, a beautiful pattern and shape. I write out of love for the people who inspire me. I write to uncover the sublime that rests inside the ordinary tasks and experiences of every day. I write to make my readers smile or even laugh. I write to keep my readers company. I write so that I can say aloud what I’ve been secretly thinking.
  1. How do you decide what to write next?

While I’m writing one book, the next suggests itself. It’s like there’s this voice in me, saying, “Well, since you managed to pull that off, why not try me? I’ll be a lot harder to write.” I know that a thought is on its way to becoming a book if I keep returning to it and adding it. Once I start taking notes or checking arcane facts, then I know I’m in for it.

  1. How long have you been a full-time author, and does your work sustain you financially and emotionally?

There may be two or three South African writers who live off their creative writing, but I am not one of them. Each novel I’ve written has taken me longer than the one before (this one took three years), and yet in each case I’ve earned the equivalent of one month’s salary in royalties and advances, a little more on the two occasions when I won a prize. So, no, I have never been sustained financially by my writing. I’ve always done some form of teaching to support myself. For the past year, I’ve been offering creative writing courses. It’s hard but rewarding work. The thought of giving up writing sometimes occurs to me when I’m exhausted by trying to do both things. But the thought lasts only a second or two. I couldn’t not write. It would be like not being alive.

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