October 2019

by Helen Elliott

‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood
The Stella Prize–winner returns with a stylish character study of women surprised by age

An old house on a cliff, a dead owner, three friends and Christmas. Jude, Wendy and Adele traditionally spend Christmas with Sylvie in her rackety-lovely house perched so high above the sea that the only way to reach it is in a contraption called an inclinator. But Sylvie has been dead for 11 months, and the three are there not to celebrate Christmas but rather to sort things out so that the house can be sold. It’s a setting for classic Christie. Or Hitchcock.

Except there will be no murder. Murder requires motivation and motivation requires plot. The Weekend (Allen & Unwin; $29.99) is a character study and an interrogation of the heart rather than a narrative in search of a plot.

With poise and originality Charlotte Wood discloses the lives of three women who are surprised by age. Isolated, in enforced closeness and with hourly confrontation of their own mortality, each woman must look at elements of past choices that have configured the present.

Jude has established a renowned Sydney restaurant. She is rail thin, obsessive, bossy. Truly unappealing. The only love of her life is a married man. Wendy is an academic, a widow, messy, focused on her work rather than her children. Truly irritating. She brings her failing old dog, Finn, with her, much to Jude’s disgust. Adele, who at first appears to be the least interesting, proves otherwise. An actor who had some fame, she is self-absorbed and puzzled that, despite her ravishing hair and charming behaviour, no one on the train to the coast recognises her. Truly exasperating.

The fourth friend, Sylvie, is as present in everyone’s thoughts as she is in her house. With her sweetness and generosity of heart, Sylvie was everyone’s favourite. Although it transpires that even she could betray.

 These distinctive women might never have been friends, but when together something greater than their selves occurred, just as it does in a musical quartet. Such an ensemble works by enabling hidden knowledge and creating surprising alliances. It is exacting work, finding balance within the range of each instrument. Great quartets find, sometimes permanently, sometimes fleetingly, a mysterious quality that lifts a piece beyond the ordinary. Over this Christmas weekend the three women acknowledge that their quartet had central meaning in their lives. In it they found real intimacy.

This is a mightily accomplished work. Wood has created an intricate evocation of these anxious lives. Her central preoccupation are the questions: What have I lived for? What have I done with my one precious life? The unvarnished truth is that small acts of kindness defeat even core selfishness. For Jude, Wendy and Adele, the weekend is a sifting through what is important and what is not. Wood, in this engaging, stylish work, suggests that only by attending to the subtle ties involved in connection with others might there be an answer from the echoing void.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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In This Issue

The Monthly Awards 2019

Highlights of the year in Australian arts and culture

‘Act og Grace’ cover

‘Act of Grace’ by Anna Krien

The journalist’s propulsive debut novel tackles the aftermath of the Iraq War

Still from Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

No one’s laughing now: Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

A gripping psychological study of psychosis offers a surprising change of pace in the superhero genre

Action Comic cover

Len Lawson: Australia’s most infamous comic artist

The tragic story of the creator of the Lone Avenger

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Give us not serenity but a sense of urgency in the face of catastrophic climate change

Image of Cătălin Tolontan in Collective.

Bitter pill: ‘Collective’

This staggering documentary exposes institutionalised corruption in Romanian hospitals

All things considered: Emily Maguire’s ‘Love Objects’

The Australian writer’s latest novel portrays hoarding with an acute understanding of the deeply human desire to connect

Image of Antara by Betty Kuntiwa Pumani. © The artist, Mimili Maku and Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne 2021

Held in common: ‘The National’ at the MCA

Foregrounding women’s practice, this exhibition of contemporary Australian art proposes a poetics of inclusion