Friendships are a special part of the rich tapestry of life. Some last a lifetime, while others wax and wane. But can friends know too much about each other? And what happens in a close-knit circle of long-term friends when a central figure dies? How does ageing affect self-identity and friendship? These are questions Charlotte Wood tackles artfully in her masterful new novel The Weekend.
The story weaves together the lives of three women in their seventies who meet to clean out the coastal holiday home of their mutual friend Sylvie who has died. This foursome friendship has been an important and supportive feature of their lives since their mid-thirties, and it's painful and confronting to come together now, in Sylvie's absence, to face the harsh truth of her death and throw out her things.
The women represent a mixture of personalities, professions, love-lives and wealth. Jude is an ex-high-class restaurateur, shrewd, reserved, and often harsh and controlling. Adele is a once-famous actress, struggling to accept that she is past her use-by date and no longer able to secure work. Wendy is an internationally-recognised intellectual who made career sacrifices for family and marriage, as so many women do.
Together, these women, along with Wendy's decrepit large shaggy dog, provide a melting pot of emotion, friction and secrecy, generating a narrative teeming with tension and raw insights into the intricacies of friendship and ageing. It's easy to be drawn into the emotional roller-coaster that underpins their interactions. There's enough baggage here to blow things apart. And there's significant suspense in wondering how the weekend will play out, whether the shared knowledge and experience has become too toxic for friendship to continue beyond Sylvie's grave.
Wendy's dog, Finn, is an endearing and important character who acts a metaphor for the process of ageing and acceptance. His frailty, confusion, and restlessness highlight the agony and pitifulness of getting old. His poor health causes angst among the women; Wendy loves him, but to the others it seems unjust that she won't consider euthanasia to end his life - an option which is only just becoming available for humans. Jude can't tolerate Finn's smelliness and incontinence, and his diminishing mental alertness and arthritic pain are realistically drawn. Yet, his silent suffering mirrors the women's own future journeys. And his presence draws out deeper aspects of their personalities, some endearing, others unpleasant. He acts as a catalyst for their arguments and confrontations - creating both rifts and moments of extreme tenderness, as only animals can.
As a veterinarian working in domestic animal practice, I am confronted daily by issues to do with decline and death, so I was particularly interested in Wood's incisive examination of these topics. The Weekend emerged from Wood's time as artist-in-residence at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney. The purpose of this residency is to bring art and science together to expand society's understanding of health, wellbeing, ageing and cultural identity. Wood doesn't flinch from difficult issues, such as feelings of irrelevance and invisibility, loss of husbands and loved ones, grief, disillusionment, the meaning of life, fear of death, acceptance and denial, sexuality and desire. She tackles these topics with searing honesty.
Fortunately Wood is adept at using humour to soften potential grimness, such as the tense moment when Wendy drops a vase while cleaning out the laundry: "they all looked down at a long tear in the skin on Wendy's calf, and the bright red blood that was curling down around her ankle. Finn leaned in, licking helpfully". And there are many moments of optimism and hope: "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".
Wood's characters encompass broadly different personality types, so it's possible to find elements of yourself in their behaviour and thoughts - I certainly did. While the protagonists are at times frustrating and fallible, these very flaws and weaknesses make them likeable.
The Weekend has great energy and momentum, even though old age is often seen as slow and tedious. Wood draws attention to the importance of sensitive concealment within friendship; right to the end, I was wondering whether the fabric of friendship would be able to endure the tests Wood imposes on it. This is an illuminating novel of friendship, joy and hope, tempered by fear and sadness. Wood describes the ordinary with such clarity, it is at once both tender and devastating. Her skillful observations of the minutiae that make us human ultimately show us who we really are.
- Karen Viggers is a Canberra writer. Her latest novel is The Orchardist's Daughter.
- The Weekend, by Charlotte Wood. Allen & Unwin. $29.99.