Born in Cape Town in 1962, Finuala was the seventh of eight children of radio broadcasters Eve van der Byl and Paddy Dowling. She studied at UCT and then, after obtaining her MA in English, moved to Pretoria, where she spent eight years teaching English at Unisa. She gave birth to a daughter, Beatrice, in 1993, and while on sabbatical in the village of Riebeek-Kasteel, completed a doctorate (published in 1996 as Fay Weldon's Fiction). After her divorce she returned to her hometown of Kalk Bay, where she works as a freelance educational materials developer, writer and lecturer.
Starting with a few short stories published in local and international anthologies, she had her first taste of popular success with a series of comic skits entitled Cape Cool, performed regularly at a local vegetarian restaurant. Later this theatrical side had a more public presentation when her comedy Bungee Writing Finals won the Audience Vote at the PANSA Reading of New Writing Festival in 2002, and went on to a full production at Spier, the historic wine estate and entertainment centre once owned by her seventeeth-century van der Byl forefathers.
Finuala turned to poetry partly by accident, and partly as therapy for a broken heart. After a reading at a Kalk Bay bakery, Gus Ferguson solicited a manuscript from her, and in 2002, I Flying (which recently won the 2004 Ingrid Jonker prize for a debut volume of poetry), was published by Carapace. In June 2003, she was co-winner of the Sanlam Award for poetry for an unpublished collection entitled Doo-wah Girl of the Universe. Her first novel, What Poets Need, will be published by Penguin SA in early 2005.
At first glance Dowling’s poems are light, entertaining and easy to read – the result of careful craftsmanship. However, beneath the surface they can be touching and deal with a variety of disparate topics. Contrast To the doctor who treated the raped baby and who felt such despair with Rule three thousand and ten.
Her charm and sheer poetic ability were summed up by David Medalie in the Sunday Independent: “the reader is drawn in by the humour, the pathos, the wry stoicism: but also by the tongue-in-cheek mischievousness, the evident delight in the swirl of words.” Shirley Kossick in the Mail & Guardian echoes Medalie’s words: “beneath the flip and whimsical surfaces there is a keen and inventive mind at work…moments of great poignancy and profound compassion.”
Another aspect of Dowling’s work is that she is resolutely unique in her insistence – despite an ironical stance – in locating her poems within the geographical scope of her life. Exposure to her work introduces the reader to the community that she lives in, her family, her friends, who are portrayed with wit and with great affection. In a way, this insistence to such a poetic microcosm, requires courage great skill.
In effect, the last stanza of 'Falling feeling' could be seen to apply to a reader encountering her poems for the first time.
I came to our first true meeting
With a deeply falling feeling,
But I think you just caught me
Reeling. You just reeled me in.