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Charlotte Wood. Photo/Wendy McDougall/Supplied

The Weekend: Celebrated feminist author Charlotte Wood tackles the ageing issue

Charlotte Wood’s 2015 novel, The Natural Way of Things, was described by the Guardian as a “masterpiece of feminist horror”. In it, 10 women wake up to find they’ve been drugged, abducted and taken to a prison in the Australian outback. There they are beaten and ill-treated by their male guards. Gradually, they come to understand the reason for their punishment: each has accused a powerful man of a sexual crime. Their brutal captors make it clear the prisoners are a bunch of complaining sluts who have brought trouble upon themselves.

The book made the kind of loud, easily interpreted feminist statement that was bound to attract attention. It was readable, vivid, graphic and a furious attack on the patriarchy. Worthy, angry and proud, it demanded respect and barged its way to success in spite of being, in some respects, as subtle as a brass band.

Now, Wood has written about women again, but the tone of the new novel is significantly quieter. The Weekend is a detailed exploration of the relationships between three women who are mourning the death of their lifelong friend, Sylvie. The focus is on ageing, which is its own feminist issue. Wendy, Adele and Jude are confined within another sort of prison – a casually misogynist society that worships youth and is dominated by men. Their days of being “sluts” are gone; now these ladies are “over the hill”.

In the days leading up to Christmas, the women meet at Sylvie’s beach house to clear it out for sale. Jude is efficient and uptight, Wendy is eccentric and intellectual and Adele is hanging on to the fantasy of her acting career despite being old, plump and unemployed. Their relationships are fragile: Jude has had a long-term role as the “other woman” in the life of a married man; Adele’s partner is about to kick her out; and Wendy’s main attachment is to Finn, a dog so ancient, demented and decrepit he’s more or less dying throughout the book.

As the women deal with their grief and the realignment the death has caused, they look sideways at each other, comparing, puzzling, trying to take stock. They’re hard on one another: “Adele was so relaxed about her body, Jude thought. Another person might not say relaxed: they might say deluded.” They’re hard on themselves, as society has taught them to be: “Jude hated the elderly. She always had, even as a child, when other children adored their grandparents … She knew there was something wrong with her, she knew this disgust meant something psychological.”

Wood wittily portrays the weird revelations of ageing, the way awareness arrives not gradually but in a series of abrupt, unwelcome shocks: an unflattering photo, or a stranger’s comment making it clear that fond self-image is out of step with reality. Jude has to keep reminding herself, “She was old herself now. She knew that.”

The Weekend throws up confrontations and brutal truths. A meeting with a young stage director is comic, until it brings Adele’s situation harshly into focus. Jude faces up to the possibility she’s sold herself terribly short. Wendy grapples with the poignant, dying dog.

Meanwhile, a summer storm is brewing and, as the air thickens, the conflict deepens and expands. The women will say the unsayable, rage against time and fate, hurt each other and themselves. Wood skilfully maintains the tension as the alliances strain. Life is a cruel comedy. The joke’s on us, but friendship is the saviour. It’s female solidarity that will hold us up and bring us through the storm.

THE WEEKEND, by Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin, $33)

This article was first published in the October 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.