Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 272 pages; 2019.
The push and pull of friendship between three older women forms the dark, beating heart of Charlotte Wood’s eagerly awaited new novel, The Weekend.
The trio, all in their seventies, have known each other for a lifetime. There is Jude, a bossy, not-afraid-to-speak-her-mind type who was once a famous restaurateur; Adele, a renowned actress with “famous breasts” who is now mostly out of work and struggling to get by financially; and Wendy, an acclaimed public intellectual, who is widowed, largely estranged from her adult children and beholden to an elderly dog that is deaf, arthritic and incontinent.
When they come together for a weekend over Christmas there isn’t much celebrating going on. They’ve been asked to clear out the old beach hut that belonged to their friend, Sylvie, who died about 18 months ago. Thrust together in sad circumstances — and without Sylvie’s patient, diplomatic hand to keep the mood light — tensions and old hurts rise to the surface as they sort through Sylvie’s belongings and recall old times.
By the end of the weekend a lot has changed and the fragile equilibrium between them all is forever altered.
Her characters are painfully real — flawed, emotional, but kind-hearted and well-meaning. Each one is distinctly drawn and vastly different from one another so it’s relatively easy for the reader to get a handle on who is who: Jude is pragmatic and gets things done but lives a secret life; Adele is fit and confident and full of life, the type of woman who has always been the centre of attention; while Wendy, the academic, lives in her head and appears older than the others despite them all being roughly the same age.
Their stories, all told in the third person, are expertly woven together so that each gets an equal amount of time in the spotlight, as it were.
The fourth character is not, as you might expect, Sylvie (we know very little about her), but Finn, the elderly dog, who could be seen as a metaphor for death or at least the decrepitude that awaits them all.
What I loved about this book is its authenticity. There’s a lot of quiet observations about growing old that ring true: the moment when you see a friend’s feet and realise she is old; the inability to read your FitBit without your glasses; the envy of seeing younger people who are slimmer and lither than you.
And the fraying tempers and impatience of putting up with other people when you’d rather be doing something else with your time are pitch-perfect.
While it’s not a particularly plot-driven novel it moves forward through a series of set pieces, some of which are blackly funny. There’s a scene in a restaurant in which Jude loses her temper with a waitress who fails to take her complaint about stale bread seriously that had me chuckling away, and another incident in which Adele, desperate to go to the toilet, takes a pee in a park and hope no one sees her!
And, of course, everything is written in Wood’s characteristic rich, exquisitely limpid prose.
If you’re expecting this book to be The Natural Way of Things mark II, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. This is a gentler story, much more reminiscent of Wood’s earlier novels, The Children and Animal People, which were both very much focused on personal relationships within families. But by the same token, it has done something that The Natural Way of Things also did: it has given voice to a cohort of women often much maligned in society — and literature.
This is my 18th book for #AWW2019.