Charlotte Wood’s new novel, The Weekend, is her best work yet. It is also one of the best novels of the year. At the same time – and I do not mean this disparagingly – it struck me as somehow old-fashioned, perhaps in part because of its departure from the style and subject matter of Wood’s most-recent novel, The Natural Way of Things.
While that novel was a post-apocalyptic feminist allegory, The Weekend is about three elderly women – and an aged dog – who come together at the holiday house of a dead friend to sort through her personal chattels and their own personal baggage. I couldn’t remember the last time I had reviewed a book like it. In fact, The Weekend took me all the way back to Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm, in which the children and servants of Elizabeth Hunter gather around the matriarch’s deathbed, and in which White magnificently exposes human frailty and monstrosity, along with the banal but brutal truths of life and death. Indeed, The Weekend shares not only The Eye of the Storm’s thematic interests but also its brilliance.
The Weekend introduces us to three women in their 70s: the patrician and perfectionist Jude, a former restaurateur who has devoted her life to a married man and to living stylishly; the bohemian actress Adele, who isn’t good at reckoning with the demands and responsibilities of reality; and the renowned Oxford-educated intellectual Wendy, who is a widowed mother to grown-up, resentful children. (As an aside, Adele reflects that the aged Wendy looks “really very much like Patrick White”, suggesting Wood’s awareness of her novel’s antecedent.) These women make their way, separately, to the beachside shack of their recently deceased friend Sylvie to clear out the house before it is to be sold by Sylvie’s partner, Gail, who has taken off.
The Weekend, like The Natural Way of Things, is as beautifully contained as a stage play. Within a claustrophobic setting – a holiday shack in this novel, an outback prison in the earlier book – Wood is able to maintain focus on her characters, which she dissects with the precision of a vivisector (to evoke the title of another Patrick White book).
Both The Weekend and The Natural Way of Things are particularly interested in women and women’s relationships, and these are scrutinised here without sentimentality, though not without humour. Jude, at one point, feels “it was rather boastful of Adele to have quite so much hair. It was the kind seen in promotions for retirement living, the ads pretending that growing old could be anything but contemptible.” Meanwhile, Adele secretly thinks of Jude as a “reverse Midas, walking through your life pointing at the things you cherished, one, two, three, and at her touch each one turned to shit”. Wood is both comic and incisive in exploring the power dynamics and gaslighting that can take place in relationships. No wonder Wendy finds herself thinking: “It was exhausting, being friends.” (Returning to the theatrical quality of this book, one can already start thinking about which actors should play which roles. Judy Davis instantly comes to mind for Jude.)
The petty and profound discontents and cruelties of these women are set against the “simple creatureliness” of Wendy’s decrepit dog, Finn, who is barely able to walk or function. In her work Wood has consistently demonstrated an interest in defining the human animal in relation to the non-human animal, and we see an animal perspective grounding her study of human characters again in The Weekend.
Jude dismisses the dog as Wendy’s “rotting security blanket”, but Jude’s disgust at the dog, in all its abject glory, is symptomatic of her gerontophobia and general discomfort with her body – her friends call her “Jude the Prude”. However, Wood powerfully blurs any conventional distinction between human and animal bodies. In one scene an anxious Finn sits on Wendy’s knee and pisses on her lap until “the hot misery of it mingled with the salt of her own tears on her skin and the sticky unbearable heat of this impossible day”.
The relationships between the women are also set against the fundamental solitude of each of them as individuals. That solitude is highlighted by the shifting point of view, which gives us access to the internal lives of each woman. Adele thinks to herself: “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 living, took place.” This book, which allows us to contemplate those inner lives of the characters, and through them think about our own, shows us the truth of Adele’s reflection. Yet that solitude is also unbearable; it is why friendships are so important.
Related to both animality and solitude is death. While this fate haunts all three characters, it is also at times given comedic treatment. Jude reflects on Sylvie: “Gail said she looked peaceful at the end. But that wasn’t peace; it was absence of muscle tone, of life. Being dead made you look younger, it was a fact.”
The Weekend delivers when it comes to characterisation, big themes and wit, but it also delivers on plot. Each character labours towards an epiphany in a stylised White-esque fashion, and there is an ending that is satisfyingly unexpected. Wood is a writer who is majestically in control, making it easy for a reader to surrender.
At one point in this novel, Adele reflects on her poverty and its relationship to her perhaps misguided artistic commitment: “Other people – people who cared nothing for art, or literature, who had probably never even seen a single Shakespeare play – these people, in the end, were victorious.” The lines are typical of a book that refuses to take anything for granted, but after reading The Weekend, which I did in one sitting, I definitely felt as if I had a win.
Allen & Unwin, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 5, 2019 as "Charlotte Wood, The Weekend". Subscribe here.