I get a little gushy when I talk about Charlotte Wood. Her writing hits all the right chords for me, particularly her quiet, thoughtful observations about everyday life. She manages to pick out the extraordinary in the ordinary.
You’re probably wondering why then, if I love her work so much, I haven’t read everything she’s ever written already. It’s simply because I like to meter my reading joy. Do you feel a ‘but’ coming?
The Children wasn’t my favourite thing Charlotte Wood has written. Many of the things I love about Wood’s writing were in evidence – details of suburbia, and the surprisingly complex characters who reveal themselves in small increments, with seemingly inconsequential actions.
“A drive to Sydney with her first boyfriend when she was seventeen, drinking rum and coke. A mushroom-coloured, brushed cotton blouse she had seen, at thirteen, in the window of Rundle’s one department store and wanted so desperately. The bloody spectacle of sheep mulesing at a school friend’s farm when she was twelve, and afterwards dancing to Australian Crawl tapes in the girl’s airless weatherboard bedroom…All these stray memories, unthought for decades.”
But where The Children lost me was with the plot. Bear with me, because that sounds like a bigger gripe than it actually is.
In short, the story focuses on foreign correspondent Mandy and her siblings, Stephen and Cathy, who have all returned to their country town to gather around the bedside of their critically injured father. The children have plenty of ‘baggage’ and various issues, some decades old, are slowly revealed. However, as they watch over their father, there’s someone else watching too: a young wardsman, Tony, who’s been waiting for Mandy to come home. He pushes into the family at their most vulnerable time, with devastating consequences.
So here’s my issue – it all felt a little too dramatic, too showy, too obvious. It’s not the Wood that I came to know in Animal People or Love & Hunger (or on her very lovely blog or her dozens of other writing projects). While Wood plays with contrast between Mandy’s dangerous life in Iraq and the threat that Tony poses (while ‘safe’ in her home town) it never felt real the way her characters usually do for me.
2/5 Turn a blind eye to the ‘action’ and focus on the detail – there’s much to enjoy.
There’s a brilliant scene where the children and their mother are dining at the new RSL restaurant, ‘Ciphers’. On the menu is the odd sounding ‘Adriatic Salad’ which includes Cajun prawns and snowpeas. As Cathy points out, the Adriatic isn’t anywhere near Louisiana. In fact, the salad leads to an argument between the children (which is obviously about much more than salad) and is my favourite scene in the book. Stephen finally delivers Mandy some home truths while their mother is concerned about making a scene –
“But Stephen is aflame. ‘You just hate ordinary people, Mandy. You hate ordinariness. But the poor bloody people overseas you are always going on about, that you make your famous living out of? You know what they want? Ordinariness. They want exactly what it is about this place that you despise!’
Mandy is silenced. She puts a cigarette to her lips, staring at her brother. She has never hated anyone so much in her life.
‘You can’t smoke in here!’ Margaret cries.”
In honour of that, try this simple Cajun Prawn Salad (with no Mediterranean influences whatsoever).