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.

26 thoughts on “Charlotte Wood: The Submerged Cathedral (2004)

  1. It’s all over your post that this book reached you. I wish you had included quotes since the style is so important.

    I’m not sure it would reach me; religion, flowers, gardens and nature are a terrible bundle that could be a real put-off.

    • Sometimes you can include a short quote and it gives you a feel but not in her case. I would have had to include really long passages. Because it’s quite hypnotic and that cannot be captured in a short quote.
      I know, these aren’t your themes, so I’m not sure at all if it would be for you.

  2. I’m wondering whether people who haven’t been part of a truly dysfunctional family would find Jocelyn’s motivation perplexing and perhaps upsetting, particularly in a book that concentrates on showing rather than telling? I find I question motivation a great deal these days in narratives. So often a random change of allegiance, or a bewildering decision can really ruin a story for me. If I feel I understand why people act the way they do, I am much more engaged and involved. I suppose that’s also why I am tending to favour books with a balance of showing and telling, because to gain psychological insight, you need some telling, I think. Still, I’m very glad you enjoyed this book and it sounds intriguing.

    • I agree with you. I think for many people it wouldn’t have been enough telling. I really had to remember that at 20 I was in a similar situation. Jocelyn was fairly easy to understand in the end. Martin was more difficult. From being a surgeon to becoming a monk, despite the fact there was a really tragic event… It made sense eventually but not at first.
      I liked that approahc, found it soothing almost. Especially explanations of psychological motivations can be so cold.

  3. You sold me! My library doesn’t have a copy so I wrote the title down on my wish list for when I go to used book stores. And I just looked at the list and now I can mark off Coventry 🙂 I love books that suck me in completely.

    • Oh it did, it’s very visual and there were so many parts I liked. I liked what she writes about copy editing. I used to do that for quite a while.
      And I love plants. My house looks often like a greenhouse. I used to have Australian plants as well but they only survived two years. I hope you can find it. It doesn’t seem that you can find anything else than used copies of this for the time being.

  4. Oh, you’ve sold me too, Caroline. I’m fascinated by family dynamics and have seen how older siblings can dominate for decades. I’ll be reading this one for sure. Hopefully her books will be available to a wider audience soon.

    • The sister in the book is a piece of work but I could understand Jocelyn so well. I hope you will like it. It’s a pity her other novels cannot be ordered. Not even used. All the more important to spread the word. 🙂

  5. I missed this one on Kim’s blog–it does sound interesting. Maybe not one I am in the right mood for a the moment but one to note down and look into later. I’ve been tending to set aside too many books lately and am trying to be more careful in selecting what to read. But the idea of this being something of a travel novel is very appealing. You’ve been reading a nice variety of books lately!

    • Yes that’s true and I was very lucky, there were quite a few I enjoyed a lot. They way KIm wrote about it made it sound like a completey different book, she only wrote about the nature elements, maybe that’s why. That attracted me but it has a lot more to offer. It’s one of the more literary books I’ve read so far this year. It’s interesting although I loved this and Clair de Lune, they spoke to me in very different ways.

  6. Beautiful review, Caroline! This looks like a beautiful book, though it looks a bit heartbreaking. I haven’t heard of Charlotte Wood before. Thanks for introducing me to this wonderful author. I can imagine Jocelyn’s situation when her sister walks into her life and takes her life over. It is such a hard situation – difficult to be quiet but also difficult to fight. It also depends on the personality of the person – Jocelyn seems to be a gentle person, from what you have written. I am sure reading about her suffering at that time will be heartbreaking for the reader. I don’t know whether I will read this book – maybe I will, if I muster up enough courage. It is interesting that it is difficult to find this book. I searched for it in Book Depository too and it was not available. I was however able to find copies in Fishpond. However their shipping rates look pretty steep.

    • Thanks, Vishy. She is a gentle perosn and a very loving one. I can’t say too much, shold you read it, you would have to find out for yourself, but she never doubts her sister one minute.
      There were a few instances of loss which were quite painful to read but the end is very positive. The writing is wonderful, I should have included a quote… I personally have a fondness for all three topics, family, nature and religion/spirituality…
      Thanks for letting me know about Fishpond. I imagine the shipping rates will be high. I would really love to read more of her.

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  8. Not being patriotic or anything I’m thrilled you chose an Aussie book for Reading Matters’ challenge… So thrilled I’ve signed up to your blog. But I’m embarrassed that I have’t read any of her fiction or nonfiction yet though I remember when the one came out. It made quite a splash.

    • That’s so nice of you. Australian books were a huge discovery this year and I will sign up again for next year’s challenge.
      It was very difficult to get The Submerged Cathedral, I had to buy it used and wait an eternity for it. You are lucky, you should be able to get her books easily.
      I really can recommend this. It’s such a great book.

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