The Weekend Charlotte Wood
A glorious novel about old age by the Australian novelist
Three women in their 70s gather to clear out the beach house of their deceased friend Sylvie. They are: Jude, a type-A perfectionist who used to work as a restaurant manager but is now a “kept woman”; Wendy, a writer, who in her heyday resembled Susan Sontag and is now becoming increasingly forgetful; and Adele, a struggling actor whose partner has just kicked her out, leaving her with nothing to her name but a wickedly sly self-awareness: “Artistic poverty was romantic when you were thirty. It was after fifty that people began despising you for it.” Being of a certain age, they are not immune to insomnia and incontinence, yet they fret more about what they want than what they have lost, about where they are in their careers and why their lover isn’t texting them back, about children and childlessness, boobs and bodies, the state of their friendship and so on, all of it insistently the stuff of womanhood rather than old age (the point being, of course, that those two conditions must coexist).
Jude, Wendy and Adele have the kinds of problems we could see ourselves having. But that’s not to say that this novel isn’t also steeped in symbolism. Wendy’s elderly dog Finn totters in and out of almost every scene: feeble, befuddled and incontinent. Early in the weekend, Jude, while watching him through the kitchen window, “nothing between them but a pane of glass”, reflects: “This was what happened to animals, and to humans, he was all failure and collapse, all decay. It was pitiful.”
Then there’s the setting – Bittoes, a coastal town populated by transients, “holidaymakers or the people who served them”, a kind of purgatory on the Gold Coast, slick with sun cream and sea breezes. Nestled in the hillside is Sylvie’s house, fitted with a mechanical elevator, rattling like a broken-down Jacob’s ladder as it clatters the women and their various bits of baggage up and down the slope. There, they perform a Marie Kondo-style purge of the stuff Sylvie has left behind, foreshadowing the release of their long-buried grievances towards each other.
What gives this novel its glorious, refreshing, forthright spine is that each of its protagonists is still adamantly (often disastrously) alive, and still less afraid of death than irrelevance. I read The Weekend during the week Dame Judi Dench, at 85, became the oldest person to appear on the cover of British Vogue, and soon afterwards a photo of 70-year-old Vera Wang wearing a sports bra went viral. There seemed to be a marvellous serendipity about all that which wasn’t lost on me as I underlined these words: “Life – ideas, thinking, experience, was still there, to be mastered … She had not finished her turn, would not sink down. She wanted more.”