Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Charlotte Wood, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood

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.

Character-driven novel

In this largely character-driven novel, Wood, who is one of my favourite authors (I’ve reviewed all her books here), explores female friendship and what it is to grow old.

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.

Growing old

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.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Charlotte Wood, Fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Pieces of a Girl’ by Charlotte Wood

Pieces of a girl

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 192 pages; 1999.

Many people will know Australian writer Charlotte Wood as the author of the award-winning The Natural Way of Things, which was published in the UK in 2016.

Pieces of a Girl is her debut novel, published by Pan Macmillan Australia in 1999 after it won the 1998 Jim Hamilton Award for an unpublished manuscript.

The blurb on my edition describes it as “one of the most moving and original novels to have emerged from Australia in recent years” — almost 20 years later, I’d have to concur.

Enigmatic novel

This elusive, fragmentary and enigmatic novel is written in rich, hypnotic prose that has a dream-like quality to it (not dissimilar to her follow-up novel, The Submerged Cathedral, which first introduced me to Wood’s beautiful writing). The structure of the book also adds to that dream-like feeling, because it depicts the inner world of a 32-year-old woman called Ivy, whose memory shifts between different time periods, including the present day, in line with her mood and state of mind.

Ivy is a picture researcher who is obsessed with anatomical photographs. She is married to a much older man, an academic who seems more interested in the orangutans of Borneo than in her. He’s so dismissive of her work, which he sees as a hobby, he moves her study from the downstairs dining room into the poky unused bedroom up in the eaves, where he invariably thinks it should remain hidden.

The focus of the novel switches between Ivy’s current uneasy life with Professor Linford, her childhood with a domineering and mentally troubled mother, and her teenage years in the care of an “accidental” father called Victor.

Spoiler alert!

I’m going to break one of my usual rules and introduce a spoiler here, because chances are you may never get to read this book (it’s currently out of print and used copies are hugely expensive). But jump to the final paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens.

For much of Ivy’s childhood, her mother tries to pass her off as a boy.

Wrapskin it is called, when she swathes me in the clothes of a boy. Time for wrapskin when we dress me in the morning gloom, her fingers picking wrapskins from the bed like flowers, wrapskinning me in them.

It is this thwarting of identity that causes Ivy to feel as if she’s unworthy of love, to feel as if she is merely “pieces of a girl” and may partly explain why she is so obsessed with anatomical pictures of the human body.

It’s only when Ivy, unhappily married and in need of answers, goes in search of Victor that her past and present collide — with an unexpected, but also satisfying, resolution.

Sadly, Pieces of a Girl is no longer in print. I sourced my used copy online a couple of years ago. I’ve just checked on Bookfinder.com to see what availability is like and I’m afraid that used copies range in price from £15 to more than £200! Maybe check your library first…

This is my 10th book for #AWW2018

2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award, 2016 Stella Prize, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Charlotte Wood, dystopian, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 315 pages; 2015.

Like the beautiful image on the cover in which gorgeous flora and fauna hide the objects of captivity  — chains, locks, a knife and barbed wire — Charlotte Wood‘s The Natural Way of Things reveals the darker elements of society which are often obscured by our shallow obsessions with, for instance, sex, glamour and celebrity.

In a narrative that is both gripping and illuminating, Wood creates a dystopian world that doesn’t actually look much different to the current one. Here, women are punished for involvement in sexual “crimes” and misdemeanours in which they have been publicly shamed and their male perpetrators have got away scot-free.

When the story opens, we meet two women, Yolanda and Verla, who have awoken after a drugged sleep. They find themselves in an unfamiliar room and they are both wearing “stupid Amish clothes”. They are guarded by two men in boiler suits. Where are they? What have they done to be imprisoned in this manner? What can they do to escape?

What would people in their old lives be saying about the girls? Would they be called missing? Would some documentary program on the ABC that nobody watched, or one of those thin newspapers nobody read, somehow connect their cases, find the thread to make them a story? The Lost Girls, they would be called. Would it be said, they ‘disappeared’, ‘were lost’? Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves. They lured abduction and abandonment to themselves, they marshalled themselves into this prison where they had made their beds, and now, once more, were lying in them.

The answers to those questions are revealed slowly as we follow Yolanda and Verla (and the other women held captive with them) over the course of a year. It’s a brutal, often harsh existence, but there are chinks of light as the women reconnect with nature (Wood writes eloquently of the quintessential Australian landscape and the wildlife, birds in particular) and learn to forget their external appearance and focus on their inner strength instead.

Their back stories are nicely fleshed out, showing how each character came to be in her current situation — and highlighting how varied their sex “crimes” had been. It’s a powerful, often terrifying, read, one that alters your perspective and leaves the reader changed in some indelible way.

A story of sexual shaming

The book is clearly an intelligent and highly original response to our modern, switched-on digital lives, where sexual shaming, particularly via social media, has become normalised. This is how one character puts it:

In the days to come she will learn what she is, what they all are. That they are the ministers-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.

But for all its exposé of misogyny, where there’s one rule for men and one for women, The Natural Way of Things is not a feminist rant. Yes, it bubbles with a slow-burning anger and it highlights the duplicity and hypocrisy of our society and shows how victims are often blamed for the horrible things that happen to them, but Wood is careful not to tar all men with the same brush.

The women in this story don’t come off lightly either. Some alliances are formed, but generally they compete against one another, and there’s a memorable scene near the end in which they all go crazy for goody bags (“they cry out and unscrew bottles and squish creams into their hands and press sticky gloss to their flaking lips with their dirty fingers”) that reveals shallow obsessions — with appearance, with shopping, with material possessions.

But the story is just as much about power and survival than anything else, and it should appeal to both male and female readers.

Visual novel with tightly controlled language

The novel is very visual (it’s no surprise that the feature film rights have been acquired by independent producers Katia Nizic and Emma Dockery) and the language, sometimes searing and blasphemous, is always tightly controlled, eloquent and delicious to read. Indeed, Wood is one of my favourite authors — I’ve reviewed  The Submerged Cathedral (2004),  The Children (2008) and Animal People (2011) — but this new novel is a sharp and unexpected change in direction for her, and I’m hoping that its popularity and critical acclaim will bring her earlier work to a much wider audience. She deserves it.

In Australia, The Natural Way of Things has already won the 2016 Indie Book of the Year. It has been shortlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize, to be announced on 12 April, and longlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It has been widely reviewed by Australian bloggers (see the Australian Women Writers Challenge website for links) as well as Simon Savidge here in the UK.

It will be published in the UK by Allen & Unwin on 2 June, and in Canada/USA by Europa on 28 June.

This is my 17th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 13th for #AWW2016.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Charlotte Wood, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Animal People’ by Charlotte Wood

Animal People

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 264 pages; 2011.

Charlotte Wood is an accomplished and award-winning writer who is largely unknown outside of her native Australia. I’ve read two of her novels — The Submerged Cathedral and The Children — having purchased them on trips back home and loved them both. Animal People, picked up on my last trip, only confirms my high opinion of her work.

A day in the life

The book spans just one day in the life of Stephen Connolly, a middle-aged man who’s feeling slightly lost and depressed with the way his life has panned out.  We have met Stephen before — he’s the “drifter” in Wood’s previous novel The Children (but note, you don’t need to have read that book to appreciate this one — they’re completely stand-alone novels), the one who’s never followed a “proper” career path, the one who his parents and his siblings are always worried about and fretting over.

Now, several years later, he’s living in Sydney, working a dead-end job in a food kiosk at the zoo and is constantly mistaken as a chef because of his (quite hilarious) penchant for wearing black-and-white chequered trousers, a bargain purchase from Aldi.

On the day in question, he’s decided that it’s finally time to dump his long-term girlfriend, Fiona, who has been putting pressure on him to move in with her and her two (bratty) children from her failed marriage.  But as the day enfolds, Stephen’s plans get thwarted, then sabotaged, and before he knows it, he’s beginning to doubt whether dumping Fiona is the right thing to do at all.

Trying to fit in

Animal People deals with one man’s struggle to find his place in a world that feels completely foreign to him — in all kinds of ways. The book’s title comes from the notion that you either love animals or you don’t, and Stephen, who has an allergy to cats and dogs, falls into the latter camp while everyone around him — his own family, his neighbours —  are slavishly looking after and spoiling pets of all sizes, shapes and descriptions, while sneering at homeless people or those unable to fend for themselves.

When Stephen told people he worked at the zoo their faces would light up. ‘Oh, I love animals! How wonderful!’ they gushed. How lucky he was, how privileged. They held him in high regard, and waited for tales of giraffe-teeth cleaning or lion-cub nursing. When he told them he worked only in the fast-food kiosk, their faces fell. But then they recovered. Still, to be surrounded by all those beautiful creatures. He usually agreed at this point, to finish the conversation. He did not say he found the zoo depressing. It was not the cages so much as the people — their need to possess, their disappointment, the way they wanted the animals to notice them.

Struggling to cope with commitment, city life and modern living, Stephen’s constantly pulled in different directions and fails to live up to anyone’s expectations — even expectations that are morally dubious.

For instance, when he accidentally hits a woman — a junkie — in his car on his morning commute, he takes her to the hospital, but when he relates the story to his colleagues afterwards — scared and a little bit embarrassed by the incident — he’s shocked when they tell him he should have just left her on the road. “My sister had a junkie boyfriend once,” one of them says. “They’re all scum, and they all lie. If she dies she deserves it. Probably would have O’D anyway.”

Unsurprisingly, given the book is set at a time of unprecedented prosperity in Australia’s history, one of the themes of Animal People is class. Stephen might have a job, but he’s down near the bottom of the social rung, scraping by as best he can, not that far removed from the junkie he tries to help.

And perhaps that partly explains his reluctance to make a serious commitment to Fiona, who was previously married to a rich lawyer and has an amazing house filled with everything anyone could possibly want: how can he ever compete with that?

Big themes, but lots of humour

Wood has a remarkable eye for detail, of getting dialogue pitch-perfect and sketching characters that are three-dimensional and believable, but she never wastes a word: the prose is reined-in, almost clipped, and yet it reads as elegantly and smoothly as a ride in a sleek sports car.

She knows what makes people tick, what scares them, what delights them, what makes them jealous or angry. And she completely understands the tensions, rivalries and complicated relationships between siblings (and their parents) in a way that sets her apart from your average run-of-the-mill novelist.

While the story deals with big themes — our obsession with material goods, social prestige and climbing the career ladder; the ways in which we relate to animals and anthromorphisise them; and how we find our place in an ever-changing world  — it’s done with a lightness of touch and a good dose of humour. I laughed a lot while reading this book — and not just at Stephen’s fashion sense. There’s a terribly funny team-building exercise that had me cringing inside, and an hysterical children’s birthday party that turns into my idea of a nightmare.

But what makes Animal People such a terrific read is Wood’s ability to tell a relatively modest story about an ordinary man in a truly entertaining (and effortless) way. I was gripped from start to finish, and then I wanted to turn back to the start and read it all over again.

Unfortunately, this book is not available outside of Australia (it doesn’t even have a listing on Amazon.co.uk), but you can buy a signed copy direct from the author’s official website or try Fishpond.co.uk to import it postage free.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Charlotte Wood, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Children’ by Charlotte Wood

Children

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 319 pages; 2008.

I read Charlotte Wood’s The Submerged Cathedral about this time last year and enjoyed it enough to want to explore more of her work. The Children, her third novel, is set over six days in February 2006.

Taken to hospital

Geoff Connolly, a retiree, falls off the roof of his home in rural New South Wales and is taken to hospital with severe head injuries. As he lays like “a mechanically breathing corpse” in the newly opened intensive care unit, his wife and three adult children — war correspondent Mandy, civil servant Stephen and artist Cathy — gather around his bedside to keep vigil.

But this is not a happy family. The siblings nurse decades-long petty grievances and bitter rivalries. Stephen has kept himself apart from the family for years and only keeps in intermittent touch with Cathy. Mandy, shell-shocked and hardened from too much time reporting from the world’s war zones, is unable to keep a civil tongue in her head — at the expense of her now crumbling marriage to Chris. While Sydney-based Cathy, the youngest, plays the role of dutiful daughter, failing to understand why her older brother and sister are always at loggerheads.

But while Geoff is oblivious to the tension and strain around him, so, too, is his wife Margaret, who is bewildered by events and the behaviour of her adult children. Her family is coming apart at the seams, but is it still her role, after all these years, to keep it together?

You bring your children up to escape sorrow. You spend your best years trying to stop them witnessing it — on television, in you, in your neighbours’ faces. Then you realise, slowly, that there is no escape, that they must steer their own way through life’s cruelties.

Dual storyline

If that’s not enough, there’s a separate drama unfolding around them: Tony, a warden at the hospital, has developed an unhealthy obsession with Mandy that threatens her safety — perhaps more so than at any other time in her life, including her stints in the Balkans and war-torn Iraq, she just doesn’t know it yet.

Wood maintains this narrative tension throughout the novel by interspersing short chapters, from Tony’s point-of-view, that demonstrate his childlike, creepy tendencies. But even without this subsidiary storyline, the main thrust of The Children — a family collapsing in on itself at a time of great distress — is a page-turning read.

The characters are so well drawn that you feel as if you’ve known them all your life. Mandy is particularly believable as the embittered, contrary and “superior” war correspondent and I like the way Wood fleshes out her back story in order to contrast Mandy’s inability to readjust to ordinary civilian life.

Authentic dialogue

The dialogue, too, is absolutely spot-on. There’s one stand-out scene in an RSL restaurant — a quintessential element of life in small town Australia, I must say — where the siblings have a spat over the menu. This deteoriates into a ding-dong battle in which Stephen delivers some hard (and painful) truths to his older sister while Margaret frets about keeping up appearances:

But Stephen is aflame. ‘You just hate ordinary people, Mandy. You hate ordinariness. But the poor bloody people overseas you are always going on about, that you make your famous living out of? You know what they want? Ordinariness. They want exactly what it is about this place that you despise!’
Mandy is silenced. She puts a cigarette to her lips, staring at her brother. She has never hated anyone so much in her life.
‘You can’t smoke in here!’ Margaret cries.

Wonderful family drama

The Children is a wonderful family drama — on an equal to anything that loads of famous white American males churn out and for which they get lauded — that puts “normality” under the microscope. It is closely observed and so beautifully nuanced that I’m sure you could read this book a dozen times and come away with new things you missed earlier.

My only quibble is the too-quick and overly dramatic ending — in which Tony and Mandy finally come head-to-head — because it lets down an otherwise superbly crafted novel.

The Children was shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards literary fiction award in 2008. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be available outside of Australia or New Zealand.

Australia, Author, Book review, Charlotte Wood, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Australia

‘The Submerged Cathedral’ by Charlotte Wood

The-Submerged-Cathedral

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.