Review: The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

The Weekend begins with Jude, a 70-something former maitre d’, waking with a desire to go to church. This is a curious feeling for her; and with a quip of “frontal lobe damage”, she dismisses the thought. These few short lines set up the tone for the entire novel, a novel concerned with mortality and the process of ageing. And, because it is about those things, it is a riot. There is no ageing gracefully or going gently into the night here.

It’s December 23 and Jude is going to her old friend Sylvie’s beach house in the Hawkesbury region of New South Wales. She’ll be joined by Wendy, a respected feminist scholar, and Adele, a darling of Sydney’s theatre scene. However this is no Christmas celebration. Sylvie, the fourth member of their quartet, died the year before, and they are tasked with cleaning up the house for sale.

They have over forty years of friendship behind them, but without Sylvie the three women find their group off kilter, cast adrift. Over the course of the weekend, they will clean and bicker, secrets and betrayals will come to light, and maybe they will find ways to resolve their grief. They are a deliciously combustible group of characters. Confined to the the house, the plot is as compelling as a whodunnit without a murder – will it be the waitress, the writer, or the actress?

I am a big fan of stories about people behaving badly in exotic locations – Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, the film Adore starring Robyn Wright and Noamie Watts. I could vividly imagine the setting in the fictional town of Bittoes – a place of sandstone cliffs and angophoras instead of eucalypts, surrounded by the ocean and the deep dark waters of the river. Wood perfectly skewers the coastal towns where wealthy Australians escape.

The Weekend is about “the place between life and death”, and its three women are plagued with mysterious aches, pains and spells, their bodies have softened. They are haunted by the spectre of dementia, which seems to at least have been part of Sylvie’s downfall. If there is a taboo to be broken about writing about ageing, The Weekend is out to break it.

This comes across most strongly through The Weekend’s fourth main character, Wendy’s utterly decrepit dog Finn. Finn is blind, deaf and demented, paces in circles or sits staring into space, or pisses and shits himself, his “clouded eyes brimmed with liquid, two mud pools in snow”. Pretty much everyone recognises that he should be put down, even if Wendy is in denial. He comes to represent different things to each of the women, and gives Jude in particular the horrors.

The portrayal of Finn one example of Wood’s talent in writing about animals, revealing that it is only our hubris that causes us to divide ourselves from nature. Often this is to gruesomely hilarious effect. On encountering Adele’s nemesis Sonia with her toy boy, Wendy imagined “him and Sonia wrestling slowly on a bed; one insect carefully devouring another”. All of Wood’s humour has this horror and shock factor. In one of the novel’s most poignant and funny scenes, Jude finds herself unable to check on Wendy after hearing the sound of glass breaking, imagining that she might be lying on the floor dead.

For all the fun and games, this novel has a lot to say about how we treat older Australians, and older women particularly. I found myself thinking often and fondly of my grandmother and her friends, and I am certain that they get up to the same mischief as the three characters at the centre of this book.

Gay rating: 3/5 for two major lesbian relationships and other minor queer characters.

The Weekend is published by Allen and Unwin.

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