I really enjoyed Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, released in 2015. At the time I suspected the book – which I took fairly literally – was some great metaphor I just didn’t quite understand and it wasn’t until later I noticed others’ reviews labelling it dystopian fiction and I realised I’d been right.
I loved Wood’s writing, which I thought exquisite. I missed her latest release, The Weekend, when it came out but thankfully won a copy recently and probably (now) need to add it (belatedly) to my ‘favourite books for the second half of 2019’ post.
by Charlotte Wood
Published by Allen & Unwin
Genres: Literary Fiction, Women's Fiction
People went on about death bringing friends together, but it wasn't true. The graveyard, the stony dirt - that's what it was like now . . . Despite the three women knowing each other better than their own siblings, Sylvie's death had opened up strange caverns of distance between them.
Four older women have a lifelong friendship of the best kind: loving, practical, frank and steadfast. But when Sylvie dies, the ground shifts dangerously for the remaining three. Can they survive together without her?
They are Jude, a once-famous restaurateur, Wendy, an acclaimed public intellectual, and Adele, a renowned actress now mostly out of work. Struggling to recall exactly why they've remained close all these years, the grieving women gather for Christmas at Sylvie's old beach house - not for festivities, but to clean the place out before it is sold.
Without Sylvie to maintain the group's delicate equilibrium, frustrations build and painful memories press in. Fraying tempers, an elderly dog, unwelcome guests and too much wine collide in a storm that brings long-buried hurts to the surface - and threatens to sweep away their friendship for good.
There’s a richness to Wood’s writing that I can’t adequately describe. I marked SOOOOO many paragraphs – both pivotal to our understanding of this book’s characters and beautifully drawn – that I had to force myself to stop. I knew I couldn’t use them all in this review and realised I should just be enjoying Wood’s words rather than overanalysing them to death.
At times she felt on the edge of discovering something very important – about living, about the age beyond youth and love, about this great secret time of a person’s life. But she had not uncovered it yet, though it seemed to flourish in her dream life, which was an underground river of rich, vibrant meaning, flowing beneath her days. She knew this now, it was not just your brain resting, but a whole life being lived… p 73
I know my reviews are hardly objective at the best of times. Good reviewers don’t insert themselves into their reviews. I do. Of course it’s my website so I’m allowed to do so. Cos here it’s all about me me me. 😉
On top of that I think the point of reading is that it transports us. It makes us feel something. Something that is unique to us. Something shaped by our own lives and experiences. By our own beliefs and expectations.
This book is very much about friendships. Relationships broadly, but friendships specifically. It’s also about ageing and death.
(As per the blurb above) it unfolds from the points of view of Jude, Wendy and Adele. Initially in isolation, before they gather…. so we garner a perception of them from each other. Each woman is written in third person – so we’re still on the outside looking in – but privy to their every thought.
Interestingly they’re both right and wrong in how they believe the others see them, and of course this colours their own perceptions of the others. Once they’re together the points of view change quickly but Wood effortlessly takes us from head to head.
I find it quite fascinating… the way we consider, and judge, those we love. My mother and I often have this conversation and I know I’ve been guilty of it with friends and relatives.
Here there’s a reminder how friends can grate on each other and the slights that accumulate over the years.
It was like dipping a hand into a pocket and searching the seams with your fingers; there would always be some tiny irritant crumbs if she wanted to find them. pp6-7
I something think and say (hopefully in confidence to a third party) judgemental things about someone. All while loving them anyway. Knowing of their foibles or inadequacies but accepting them nonetheless.
I’m assuming others do the same about me. I can imagine they’d comment on the fact I’m prone to obsessiveness. A control freak in many ways. I’m not great with conflict (though much better than I once was) and prone to sulk and withdraw rather than confront someone. But I like to think my family / friends ‘get’ that and like or love me anyway. And of course, if an outsider dared say anything (though we may think it ourselves or discuss it with a trusted confidante) we’d defend our friend / family member to the death.
Interestingly, though the woman have been friends for 40 years or more, they’re little vague on how they met. Specifically. They all seemingly agree however, that Sylvie was the glue keeping them together. In her absence nothing seems the same.
This was something nobody talked about: how death could make you petty. And how you had to find a new arrangement among your friends, shuffling around the gap of the lost one, all of you suddenly mystified by how to be with one another. p 8
We’ve all got those friendships… friends who are friends because you’ve introduced them and you wonder if they’d continue the relationship if it weren’t for you.
And then there are the friends who surprise us. We realise everyone has their own lives and other priorities but at times of crisis it’s often revealing who’s there and who isn’t. Who can be bothered; and who can’t.
All three women are in their mid 70s. They refer to their age (and stage of life) a lot.
Was this what getting old was made of? Routines and evasions? Boring yourself to death with your own rigid judgement? p 153
They’ve lived very different lives and only one of the three (or four, counting Sylvie) has children. Wendy reflects a little on her relationship with her adult kids and I suspect it’ll be a bit confronting for some.
Adele of course is fervently fighting the ageing process, though as an actress far more conscious of it and its impact on her career than her friends. She can’t understand their lack of concern over their looks but struggling with the concept of worth, of purpose and of legacy.
Jude seems to dread death more than her friends and also sometimes ponders the space she inhabits in the world. She recognises how she and her life is now defined by her lover but accepts this.
It had come to Jude a long time ago that the only time she felt fully present in the world – when the membrane between her and living was actually permeable, and that nourishment of every kind could pass though, that should could be contributing worth to the world as well as drawing from it – was when she was Daniel…
It was as if Daniel was kind of a trigger mineral, his presence essential for the absorption of all the other spiritual and intellectual and physical nutrients gathered, but unintegrated inside her. pp 155-156
And Wendy, an academic is concerned about becoming irrelevant, despite having been recognised for her ideologies and contributions in the past.
Central to the women’s consciousness about their lives and legacies is ageing and the looming threat of death…
when you reached your seventies and the disintegration began in earnest, there was the understanding, never spoken, that the latest – the news of another stroke, a surprise death, a tumour or Alzheimer’s diagnosis – would not be the last. A certain amount of withdrawal was acceptable. Within reason, you did what you must to protect yourself. p 8
Though unfolding at a time the women are confronted by their own mortality this is a story of friendship. It’s a reminder that the ties that bind us can outlast families, lovers, careers, disappointments, tragedies and secrets.
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin.
** I won a copy of this book via writer Chrissie Bellbrae.