The Weekend, Charlotte Wood

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [NSW]

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The Weekend is a novel about three 70ish women cleaning the beach house of their dead friend. And the thing is, I’m within 2 or 3 years of their age and Charlotte Wood (1965-  and looks younger on Facebook) isn’t. Wood no doubt has all or some of mother, mothers-in-law, aunts, friends, colleagues to draw on, and I’m sure she gets women, but I don’t think she gets 70, an opinion I also had about another much lauded novel, Extinctions by Josephine Wilson.

On the other hand, towards the end one of the characters muses:

People thought when you got old you wanted your lost youth, or lost love, or men or sex. But really you wanted work and you wanted money.

Well, she got that right!

I loved The Natural Way of Things and I was ready to love The Weekend, but that’s not the way it has worked out. Wood has a clear, not particularly literary, style of writing which suited TNWoT, with its compelling story line of young women in indefinite detention for being the victims of men they trusted. The Weekend is the story of just three women, at the other end of their adult lives – or so Wood would have us believe though I personally am looking forward, like my parents and grandparents, to a couple more decades of activity – but again without men at this time, and having been with men they should not have trusted as much as they did. It’s a smaller story which needed better writing and character development to carry it off.

The protagonists are Wendy, a public intellectual, Jude, a retired restaurant manager, and Adele, an actress. They all live in Sydney, and the novel opens with them making their separate ways to the fictional community of Bittoes on the Central Coast (the rocky and spectacularly beautiful coast between Sydney and Newcastle, 160 kms north), where their lately deceased long time friend Sylvie had a beach house, which they had often used together and separately, and which they have been asked by Sylvie’s partner, now safely home in Dublin, to clean up for sale.

Wendy lives comfortably off the sales of her erudite books, and plans to write more. She is overweight, and a bit stereotypically, is sloppy in her person and in her housekeeping. She has an old car, which breaks down on the way to Bittoes, and in which she is trapped while “road trains” roar past, while her old dog pisses on her lap. Wendy, now a widow, had been in a loving marriage for many years, and has two children, by an earlier marriage, who appear to blame her for something.

Jude is uptight and bossy and has been the mistress for 40 years of a banker whose principal relationships are with his wife and children and grandchildren. She has no presence other than as a storm cloud around which the others navigate.

Adele, is small with a good body, is still amazingly supple, hasn’t been offered a part for more than a year, is or was in a relationship with another woman, and is also stereotypical in her narcissism and dependence on others.

She would wear black, very simple – or no, charcoal. With some stylish sleeve detail, but fitted so that you could see her figure, which was still really very lovely. People said that to Adele often. You have a lovely figure. Which meant, you have terrific tits. For your age.

I think the author’s intention was to explore the notion of friendship, not a subject to which I have given a great deal of either thought or practice.

The thirties were the age you fell most dangerously in love, Adele had discovered, after the fact. Not with a man or a woman, but with your friends. Lovers back then came and went like the weather … No, it wasn’t lovers but friends – these courageous, shining people – you pursued, romanced with dinners and gifts and weekends away. It was so long ago. Forty years!

Wood appears to confusing my generation with hers. Baby boomers were too busy, and too poor, in their thirties, with partners and children, to be “romancing” friends.

Anyway, the three women spend the long weekend over Christmas, cleaning, or not cleaning, reviewing their lives, being bossed about by Jude, bickering, and briefly, relaxing on the beach. Adele bumps into a rival, more successful older actress at a restaurant and invites her and her 40 ish producer partner to dinner. Where everything comes to a head, including the weather (Wood shows some restraint, and doesn’t throw in a bushfire).

The air was all electricity. They were suspended, Wendy pinned on the couch, Jude and Adele each separate, adrift. None could reach the other. The door was still open and the rain swept in; darkness had swallowed up the room.

Nothing is resolved, the dog doesn’t die. Wendy feels vaguely she must do something to find out what it is that so bothers her children about their upbringing. Adele has no visible means of support for the coming year. Jude we don’t know enough about to care. The late Sylvie, whose absence might have been expected to be the centre of the novel, barley makes a showing. The friendship, having lasted this long only through inertia, would seem to have nowhere to go.

 

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2019

Other Reviews:
Kate, booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)
Kim, Reading Matters (here)
Lisa, ANZLitLovers (here)

The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood

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My starting point for this post is a review of Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things by Lisa at ANZLitLovers (here) a couple of weeks ago where three things caught my attention. Firstly, as she writes, there have been a lot of nice things said about this book over the past few months – and of course it has now been short-listed for the 2016 Stella. I had it in the to-buy list on my desk jotter for a while and without going back to look, I think it must have appeared in a number of bloggers’ must-reads at the end of 2015.

Then, Lisa describes TNWoT as dystopic. I’ve been reading SF all my adult life, my family bonds around SF, and post-apocalyptic and then dystopian have been mainstream sub-genres since the 60s. But the point which really caught my attention was when Lisa described this book as a novel about male violence against women. As an ex-husband and father who often gets his own way, that is something to which I pay a lot of attention.

In the way of these things, TNWoT had by the time of Lisa’s review moved from the to-buy list to on the shelf for the waiting-to-be-reads – there’s a few of those! All I had to do was finish the post I was working on and start reading. And enjoying.

So, this is a fine book, deserving of the praise that has been heaped on it, and I’m only sorry it has such a pretty cover. Dystopian fiction is the natural home of young men and TNWoT is a book which young men should be reading, and if only it had a cover with blood and barbed wire and so forth on it, they might be. In the Comments after Lisa’s review, TNWoT is disparaged as ‘didactic’. This might be true for educated feminists for whom the message is old, but it wasn’t for me, and would be even less so for young men.

One last Lisa-ism, TNWoT is one of those books which to discuss is to give away its secrets. I agree, but I am proposing to ‘discuss’, though without, I hope, giving away the ending, so this is your last chance to slip away and read it first.

As we start, the prose is wooden, we try to get into it, worse, we feel the author trying to get into it, to get it flowing. But then, a certain flatness is appropriate to dystopian fiction. And, do you notice too, with any good book, you start, you feel yourself reading, and then an hour, or a week, later you open your eyes again, take in the world, realise that you have been ‘in’ the book, the book has been read, and you have been completely unconscious of the text. And so it was, for me, with TNWoT.

This is the story of women, two women in particular, Verla and Yolanda, through whose eyes the action is described, who find themselves arrested/kidnapped, imprisoned and transported to a remote and derelict station whose boundary is an impenetrable electric fence. Their gaolers, two young men, the violent Bonce and the drop-out Teddy, and their ineffectual nurse/sidekick, Nancy.

It gradually becomes clear to the women that the ‘crime’ for which they have been detained, their heads shorn, their clothes replaced with ill-fitting canvas tunics, their crime has been to be attractive to men, and to complain.

Verla – lover of her boss, a married politician

Yolanda – pack raped by her boyfriend’s football team mates

Hetty – petted on the knee of an archbishop

Lydia – drugged and raped on a cruise liner

and so on …

… they are the minister’s-little-travel-tramp and that Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.

The women are marched linked together like convicts. We think of Kosovo, of the women there raped, imprisoned, murdered by Serbian troops. We think of the women our own government detains behind electrified barb wire for being brown, poor and muslim. And as the conditions of their detainment deteriorate, as it becomes obvious the gaolers too have been abandoned, we think, maybe, of Lord of the Flies. Yet, strangely, Verla, still, manages to think of ‘love’, of the volume of Walt Whitman with which Andrew, her boss, her lover wooed her –

You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me. She trudges over the grass, feels the working bones of her own narrow feet in the cold leather boots. And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart. The currawongs dropping their silvery notes. Verla feels the old slow heat rising in her with the recitation. That ‘stript’.

These might be, for Verla, the last remnants of normalcy. Yolanda is already just an animal, hunting animals for food. But that is as much of the plot as I can give you. Read this marvellous book for yourselves, or better still, buy it for your sons and boyfriends.

 

Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2015