Fiction – paperback; Vintage Australia; 297 pages; 2004.
Last year an English friend told me that one of the things that most impressed him about Australians was not their sense of humour, their propensity to drink vast quantities of beer or their prowess on the cricket field, but their affinity with natural history. “It seems to me,” he said, “that you guys really love nature, you have an appreciation for it.”
I told him that was probably largely due to bitter experience. Nature is harsh — dare I mention droughts, floods, bushfire? — and we have had to learn to live alongside it. In doing so we have come to appreciate its power and its beauty. And because so much of the flora and fauna is not found anywhere else on earth, many of these plants and animals have become national symbols in which Australians take pride and wish to protect.
This appreciation of nature is often found in Australian novels, too. Henry Lawson is probably one of the earliest proponents. But 20th century writers, such as Patrick White, Tim Winton, Randolph Stow and Murray Bail, just to name a few, have also written novels which look at how the Australian psyche is shaped by the landscape of this island continent.
Into this canon of Australian “nature novels”, if I can call them that, is Charlotte Wood‘s second novel, The Submerged Cathedral, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2005. This highly evocative book, written in stark but lyrical prose, puts the rugged beauty of the Australian landscape centre stage.
Divided into four key time periods — 1963, 1964, 1975 and 1984 — the story focuses mainly on Jocelyn, a proof reader, who has inherited her parent’s home in the Blue Mountains. As she pours over the galleys of The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of Australia, she is reminded of the country’s unique flora and begins to dream of building a “huge, elaborate garden of wild Australian plants” even though she is not a gardener and knows nothing of the plants other than she loves their names, their shapes.
The importance of Jocelyn’s dream should not be under-estimated. This desire to build a native garden would have been hugely unfashionable at the time. Back then all Australian gardens were essentially English gardens, comprising annuals and perennials, with neatly pruned shrubbery and manicured lawns. Native plants were confined to the bush; you did not put them in your garden. (As an aside, one of my favourite scenes in George Johnston’s My Brother Jack is when Davy, the main protagonist, plants a gum tree in the middle of his suburban lawn, attracting the wrath of the neighbourhood for daring to be so unconventional.)
And yet Jocelyn knows that English gardens in the Australian climate do not make sense.
All winter the garden is washed out and grey, and then in spring it explodes into colour. By midsummer it is leached dry again, but all through the childhoods of Jocelyn and her sister their mother had loved this eight weeks of English bloom.
When Jocelyn meets Martin, a doctor, from the city, the dream continues to ferment. She has a “sense of dormant things coming alive”.
One day in the garden, they crouched over a bucket.
‘Did you grow that?’ Martin asked, peering into the bucket in which the white star of a water lily was prising itself open.
‘It grew itself,’ she said. ‘I just threw a lump of wood into the water.’
‘Then it’s a gift,’ he said, smiling.
Their love affair, which is portrayed with immense sensitivity and gentleness (surprisingly, there is little or no sex in this novel), is a gift also. It’s 1963 and co-habiting is a social no-no. But Jocelyn risks her reputation to live with Martin, enduring the withering looks of locals who condemn her as “the doctor’s mistress”.
But there is a sense that Jocelyn knows exactly what she is doing. She is haunted by the memory of the man who asked to marry her when she was 18. She broke off their engagement a year later, knowing she did not love him. But her sister’s voice, ripe with disbelief and pity, still echoes in her ear: “You know there’s something wrong with you, don’t you?”
And therein lies the nub of the novel: if we are damaged by our pasts how do we heal ourselves? And what role does love and faith play in this process?
When Ellen re-enters Jocelyn’s life after a long absence — she had been living with her Australian husband in London — Ellen is hurting, too. She’s left her husband, has a young daughter and is now three months pregnant.
Jocelyn returns to her parent’s Blue Mountains home to look after her. Ellen is needy, demanding and prone to making her life seem more dramatic than it really is. Martin, once a central figure in Jocelyn’s life, feels himself being squeezed out by the sister’s shared bond. Jocelyn, so enamoured of Martin, is unable to compartmentalise her life: she cannot ignore Ellen’s claim on her.
To elaborate further would spoil the plot. But I don’t think I’m revealing any secrets when I say that Jocelyn does eventually get to build that wonderful, sublime garden, filled with native ground covers, grasses and shade trees, of her dreams. It is only then that you begin to realise that the garden is a kind of allegory about cultivating love in our hearts, reaping what we sow and finding solace in the natural world.
The Submerged Cathedral is available to buy direct from the Australian publisher’s website, but you can also pick up cheap second-hand copies via Amazon UK.