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.

Madeleine St.John: The Women in Black (1993)

With the lightest touch and the most tender of comic instincts, Madeleine St John conjures a vanished summer of innocence. The Women In Black is a great novel, a lost Australian classic.

Madeleine St. John wasn’t on my initial list of authors for the Aussie Author Challenge but after one of Litlove’s (Tales From the Reading Room) comments I thought I’d like to read one of her books and picked The Women in Black. Coincidentally Litlove reviewed it recently as well as you can see here.

The Women in Black is Madeleine St. John’s first novel. She wrote it at the age of 52. It was followed by three other novels which, unlike the first, were not set in St. John’s native Sidney but in London where the author had been living since the 60s. The book is set in the 50s in Sidney and takes place to a large extent in a famous department store, just before the Christmas rush, on the floor of Cocktail Frocks and Model Gowns. It centers on a little group of interestingly different women, Patty, married to Frank (the brute), Mrs. Jacob, the mysterious, Fay, the thirtysomething single woman, Lisa aka Lesley the assistant (temporary) and Magda, the glamorous European refugee who has more elegance and style than all of them together.

Magda and Lisa are the characters where most of the other stories converge and are the indicators that this novel, as lovely, bubbly and playful as it seems, still is a satirical comedy of manners, depicting a society undergoing great change. One of those changes concerns the status of women. No longer only dependent housewives, this decade sees the first female university students who want more than just a husband and children.

When you have a confined environment like an office, a hotel, a shop or anything like this, a newcomer like Lisa, is sure to stir things up, no matter how kind and nice the person is. Lisa is a new type of Australian woman, one that has only recently emerged, more interested in books and studying than attracting a husband.

“A clever girl is the most wonderful thing in all creation you know: you must never forget that. People expect men to be clever. They expect girls to be stupid or at least silly, which very few girls really are, but most girls oblige them by acting like it. So you just go away and be as clever as ever you can: put their noses out of joint for them. It’s the best thing you could possibly do, you and all the clever girls in this city and the world.”

The World depicted in The Women in Black is gone. The importance for a woman to attract a man has considerably diminished, it isn’t exotic for a woman to study and the composite post-war society, mixing European refugees and born Australians, has certainly become more homogenous. At the time however it seems, Europe is as far as the moon and the ways of its people quite exotic which is a source of comedy for St. John.

“Do Russians count as Continentals?” she asked Myra. “Who are you thinking of?” asked Myra. “Oh, no one in particular,” said Fay. “I just wondered.” “Well, I suppose they do, ” said Myra. “But you know they’re not allowed out, Russians. You never really see any Russians, do you? They are all in Russia.” “I suppose you’re right, ” said Fay. “Still, if they were allowed out, they’d be Continentals, don’t you think?” “Oh yes, I reckon so, ” said Myra. “All them peoples are Continentals.”

This is a witty and cheerful novel in which each chapter is like a vignette and tells episodes of the one or the other woman’s story. As much as it depicts a change of values it shows that some things will always be of importance to women and much of this is reflected by the clothes and gowns sold at the department store. The power of dresses and fashion cannot be underestimated. A beautiful dress, sexy lingerie can become more than just a piece of garment, it can tie you down or free you.

Lisa stood gazing her fill. She was experiencing for the first time that particular species of love-at-first-sight which usually comes to a woman much earlier in her life, but which sooner or later comes to all: the sudden recognition that a particular frock is not merely pretty, would not merely suit one, but answers beyond these necessary attributes to ne’s deepest notions of oneself. It was her frock: it had been made, however unwittingly for her.

I enjoyed this a lot, and was reminded of my grand-mother who supplied Haute Couture dressmakers with haberdashery. I still have some of her elegant gloves and scarves, even some of her handbags and a black evening coat. It made me very nostalgic to read about the changes linked to clothes. Lisa’s mother sows a lot of her daughter’s clothes, alters them, mends them. Nowadays we just throw them away, buy something new. Only the most expensive Haute Couture dresses are still handmade.

As I said, it’s a cheerful novel that captures a changing society and a vanished world. It’s not free of social criticism but it manages to show that even this long-gone era with its antiquated beliefs had its charm. There are infuriating moments and people in the book, mostly men who repress women and the women who support them, but each negative character gets a chance to develop. The positive habits of one character are passed on to another one and all of them win something in the end. Lisa, for example is a reader and when she passes on her copy of Anna Karenina to Fay this isn’t only a symbol – shortly afterwards, she meets a nice Hungarian man – but reading literature is a new habit. There are many instances like this in the novel. Maybe at some other time I would have found this to be overly optimistic but it was exactly what I needed after my last readalong title.

If you want to spend a few moments with a cheerful and intelligent book, this is one you shouldn’t miss.

The Women in Black is my first contribution to the Aussie Author Challenge 2012.

Aussie Author Challenge 2012 – Bolaño Group Read – Henry Green Week

I discovered the  Aussie Author Challenge 2012 hosted by  Booklover Book Reviews on Tony’s Reading List. I’m not sure how many Australian authors I’ve read in my life so far, but I’m pretty sure not all that many. While browsing my piles I discovered five novels. One of them also qualifies for the War Through the Generations Challenge. Lisa from ANZ Litlovers has kindly given input and my choices seem worthy. Should you want to join the challenge, her blog offers lists where you will find a lot of reading suggestions. I have signed up for the  “beginner” level or, as the challenge terms it, “tourist”.

These are the books I’d like to read

David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter

Tim Winton’s Dirt Music


Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus

Charlotte Wood’s Submerged Cathedral (OOP?)

Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip

January is a busy month but some of the events were too good. I had to join.

I signed up for the Bolaño The Savage Detectives group read hosted by Richard and Rise last year and now is the time to start reading as the novel is on the chunky side. If you’d like to read along you better get a copy soon or you will not make it through the 770 pages in time. I have a feeling I won’t but if I mange to read 2/3 I’m already pleased with myself.

The week of January 23 sees another event coming that  I absolutely had to join. Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog is hosting a Henry Green week. Henry Green was once thought to be one of the greatest stylists of British literature but is now almost forgotten. I have never read Henry Green and think Stu’s idea is really wonderful. Penguin has issued a tome containing three of his famous novels Loving, Living and Party Going. I’m going to read Loving.

Do you have any Aussie author suggestions?

Will you join the Bolaño group  read or Henry Green Week?