Charlotte Wood: The Submerged Cathedral (2004)

Australian author Charlotte Wood’s lyrical novel The Submerged Cathedral caught me unawares. Reading it felt at times like daydreaming. It has a hypnotic and very gentle quality that isn’t easy to put into words. It is highly symbolical and complex but still down to earth. The voice and choice of themes are so unusual, I’m really glad I discovered it on Kim’s blog last year (here).

The novel has four parts, each dedicated to a year – 1963, 1964, 1975, 1984 – covering twenty years in the lives of Jocelyn and Martin.

In part I Jocelyn and Martin meet and fall deeply in love. It’s the 60s and concubinage is far from being accepted. Jocelyn who already turned down one man, doesn’t want to get married but she wants to live with Martin. When they meet she is working as a copy editor and proofreading the manuscript of The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of Australia. The parts which speak the most to Jocelyn are those dedicated to the flora of Australia. The beauty and mystery of all these plants that are unique to this part of the world are a major theme. While reading about them Jocelyn becomes aware of them and decides she would love to create a garden, a garden unlike the English garden her mother used to have. Hers should be a garden with Australian plants only.

Martin is a doctor, a doctor who is much more of a healer than a surgeon. He can almost feel what is wrong with people before they tell him and knows what they need to recover. He is very taken with Jocelyn and her idea and wants to help her build the garden.

The time they spend together in his house is idyllic. They sit on the porch, talk about their plans, go swimming. It’s peaceful and harmonious until the day Ellen, Jocelyn’s older sister, announces she will come back to Australia. She has been living in London with her husband and her daughter. Her husband’s violence is driving her away.

Why the strong and courageous Jocelyn who doesn’t even fear to be a social outcast, lets her sister take over her life and dictate her every move, is hard to understand for anyone who has never been entangled in a dysfunctional family system. I know what this is like and although I read with shock how the beauty is crushed and the relationship between Martin and Jocelyn is put to a test it doesn’t pass, I could relate. It made me gasp and infuriated me but I felt that Jocelyn couldn’t act any other way under those circumstances. At the end of part I a tragedy happens after which Jocelyn leaves Martin.

The next three parts of the novel follow them in their journey from grief to healing and beyond. Jocelyn chooses to follow Ellen to London. Martin joins a convent. All through the novel the themes of love, religion, nature and gardens are undergoing different variations.

What I liked so much about this book is the way it is written. It has the capacity to draw you in. It speaks to your emotions much more than your intellect. I felt like a spectator who was captivated and then became part of the story because Charlotte Wood really shows everything, she doesn’t tell a lot. We don’t only think that Ellen’s sister is destructive, abusive and a liar, we experience it. This is amazingly artful. It’s also never said why Martin joins a convent but we learn to understand. The same goes for the description of the Australian flora and Jocelyn’s urge to create a garden that guides and haunts her until she finally gets the opportunity to follow her dream.

I would love to visit Australia because it is so unique, because it has landscapes and plants and animals that you find nowhere else in the world. If you share this fascination, you will love this book. It is a hymn to the beauty of that continent but it is also a hymn to love. Pure unconditional love. Last but not least it has  a religious theme that is as important as the nature element. The gardens of the Bible are mentioned and alluded to, Eden and Gethsemane. Antonement and pilgrimage are other key themes. While Martin tries to make sense as a recluse, Jocelyn is living like a pilgrim.

The Submerged Cathedral is a very subtle novel, very alluring and despite its gentleness very powerful. It seems to have been created in a timeless zone.

Part III in which Jocelyn travels through Europe with a garden architect has the appeal of a travel novel. They stay in France and Spain and while visiting Parque Güell in Barcelona, Jocelyn has a vision. The title The Submerged Cathedral refers to Debussy’s La cathedral engloutie. Seeing Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia reminds her of this piece of music. When she sees Gaudí’s church, everything is tied together; her idea of an Australian garden, the organic forms of Gaudí’s work, the dryness of the Spanish earth. Her journey is fulfilled and she returns to Australia.

I liked this book a lot. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking. Several tragedies happen between these pages that each made me put the book aside for a while. But there were equally passages of great beauty that also made me put the book aside. I wanted those pages to linger just a little while longer.

I would like to read more of Charlotte Wood’s books but they are not available outside of Australia at the moment. Animal People sounded like a novel I would love. Here is the link to her website if you’d like to explore.

The Submerged Cathedral is my second contribution to the Aussie Author Challenge 2012.

Here is a wonderful and very subtle analysis of the novel which I found on Nike Sulway’s blog Lost for Words: The Submerged Cathedral.