Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
by Charlotte Wood
Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9781760292010, Oct 2019, 272 pg, Paperback, $29.99
Charlotte Wood is such a subtle writer. Her sentences are so smooth and easy to read that they feel light, but there’s so much going on; so much complexity in her work. Wood’s latest novel, The Weekend, is as fast a read as I’ve come across from Wood. The book opens 11 months after Sylvie’s death. Sylvie is one of four friends, and the owner of the beachside house which they have gathered over the years. In the wake of her death, the remaining three, Wendy, Jude, and Adele have been given the task of cleaning Sylvie’s beach house and sorting through her things in preparation for sale. Sylvie was the person who kept everyone together, and the atmosphere calm. Her absence in this book is so poignant that it becomes a character in itself – a lacuna around which the friends begin to argue, struggle, mourn, explore, and heal.
The three characters, who are in their seventies, have been lifelong friends, a friendship that has endured through many life changes: children, relationships, careers. Wendy was an “internationally renowned” author, public intellectual, and lecturer, Jude a highly respected restauranteur, and Adele a famous actress, but in Sylvie’s absence and stripped of their life roles through retirement, the vast differences between the three strains to not only undo their friendship but to destroy each of them. They duck and dance around and through one another, with alternative point of views/narrative interior voices that calls to mind the six characters in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, with the missing Sylvie mirroring the missing Percival, particularly the last section of The Waves when the now aged characters come together to mourn and celebrate Percival’s passing. The voices of Adele, Wendy and Jude are both distinct and interwoven, moving in a way that is musical as it shifts from one distinct refrain to another, picking up and transforming each perception, and playing with notions of language, relationships, memory and experience:
You had your ostensible life, going about the physical world, and then you had your other real, inner life—the realm of expression, where the important understandings, the real livings, took place. (98)
The plot develops around the task the characters have ahead of them: to clean house, prepare for its sale, and in a more metaphorical sense, to prepare themselves for the third act of life—perhaps at a slower, more gentle pace. Wood does an exceptional job of moving smoothly between external experience and internal perception. Jude arrives early and it is her narrative that sets up the book with her sharp-eyed observations and desperation for control. She works the hardest, but her fear of losing control of herself and the world that surrounds her is palpable, and makes her appear mean as she tries to keep her friends and their foibles in check while denying her own unravelling. This is particularly evident in Wendy’s old, dying dog Finn, whose presence is an anathema to Jude, but also a catalyst for transformation:
Cognitive decline, doubtless. Frontal lobe damage, religion, fear of death, they were all the same thing. Jude has no illusions.
This longing—was it longing? It was mysterious, an insistence inside her, a sort of ache that came and went, familiar and yet still powerful and surprising when it arrived. Like the arthritis that flared at the the base of her thumb. The point was this feeling had nothing to do with Christmas, or with anything in her waking life. It came somehow from the world of sleep, from her dreaming self. (1)
Wendy, the writer, arrives late in a broken down car, her trouser sodden with Finn’s urine. Adele, the actress, is also late, arriving by train, partly because she cannot afford a car, as she is out-of-work and destitute after her partner’s sudden departure. Though none of them acknowledges it, they are all, in some way, alone, abandoned by their children, their partners, and removed from the careers they defined themselves by. Little by little vanity is shaken, stripped off, recontextualised, and transformed into something elemental:
The black road glittered and there was a deep, blank moment where every surface around her vanished, and then that darkness was ripped open into day with a detonation deeper and louder than anything Wendy had ever heard. She found herself on her knees in the lump grass by the low rock wall near the jetty. (241)
Throughout the novel, the prose is perfect, exquisite and rich – never showy or overwrought. As the point of view moves in and out of each character, the characters themselves move in and out of focus, in and out of the house, in and out of memory, and in and out of their comfort zones with one another. The interactions are funny, pithy, rich, and moving, and Wood never misses a beat as she subtly drives the narrative to its Woolf-like conclusion on Christmas morning, opening up the worlds of these women through their interaction and empowering them in unanticipated ways. The Weekend is about so many things: preconceptions, societal norms, continuity and difference, about the self and about relationships, but most particularly about friendship and what it means to be both separate individuals in this world throughout life changes, and also the ways in which we are implicitly connected and collective.