Australian Book Industry Award: 2020 Literary Fiction Book of the Year

Given that I spent part of the weekend just gone in Melbourne in virtual attendance at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival , it was time to read something Australian. Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend had appealed from the moment I had first heard of it, but still in shock from her previous work, The Natural Way of Things, I was anxious.

As it was Wood’s new set of protagonists had a better time than her previous set, and I had a better time than they.

Jude, Wendy and Adele are lifelong friends. Now in their 70’s, they have reached that age when final goodbyes need to be said. Their friend, Sylvie, has died, and they are to spend the weekend before Christmas clearing her house. Wood starts the story as each woman journeys separately to the house and these character introductions establish the different temperaments, stresses and the incompatibilities that will provide the dramatic tension during the house clearing.

Jude is the irrascible dragon, the control freak, the one with money, whom Wendy and Adele skirt around, seeking to appease. Yet Wendy, the intellectual losing her memory, knows she is about to antagonise, for she has brought her ageing dog, Finn, with her. Jude hates dogs … Bohemian Adele, not quite an ex-actress but one for whom there has been no work in the previous twelve months, still lives in a fantasy world. You can just see Jude itching to tell her to sit up and smell the coffee.

Given the long-standing friendship you’d expect these women to be open with each other. Yet their interior, insecure emotional worlds are kept remarkably private. The true nature of Jude’s relationship with Daniel for example. Wendy keeps her problems with her children to herself. Adele does not reveal that, having just been dumped, she has arrived homeless.

The clearing of Sylvie’s house – each in separate areas – further underlines their differences. Their methods are comically different. They reflect on the others’ self-delusions (not their own, naturally) – well, brood might be a more appropriate verb. Yes, they brood and feed their grievances. While Sylvie’s possessions give rise to many memories, as objects, they are nothing but clutter. Only the white sofa – a gift from Jude – seems destined to survive the clearout. With a dog in the house?

Which brings me to Finn, Wendy’s ageing canine companion. Decrepit, deaf, incontinent, shaking, fearful, Finn. Still breathing but a constant reminder of the indignities of old age and the fate that awaits the three ladies, whose own physical disintegration is in progress. Who needs to be reminded on that on a daily basis? Certainly not Adele, whose bosom remains one to be proud of, and who sees one final chance to resurrect stardom ….

This vanity sets in motion events that bring the slow simmer of tensions to the boil and the reveal of the BIG secret, the one that should not ever be mentioned. Because it is capable of severing the tenuous links of friendship entirely. Will it?

During her wondrous conversation about reading and writing with her own long-standing friend, Tegan Bennett, at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival, Wood said that she wrote The Weekend for relief after The Natural Way of Things. She hoped too that it would be a relief for readers “brave enough to follow her”. I can confirm that – strange as it may sound – her forthright novel regarding the truths of old age and the ironies of life and friendship was exactly that.