Love and duty: The Submerged Cathedral by Charlotte Wood

Here’s the second post in a quick series of Australian reviews. Here in Perth the weather is bearable today. I might actually get some reading done!

submerged cathedralI really love Charlotte Wood’s writing and this The Submerged Cathedral had me from the first page. It’s a love story but it’s also an ode to a sense of place. To home, where ever that may be. And to faith, religious faith and faith in other people. The leap of trust that faith requires.

It is 1963 and Jocelyn lives alone in her parents old house in a NSW country town. Fiercely independent, and a bit of a loner, her work from home is painstakingly proofreading The Complete Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Australia. The town’s new locum doctor, Martin, knocks on her door one afternoon and presents her with a fish.

“But now she is standing there and he knows he is only some stranger on the doorstep, yammering and gaping with the open mouth of the uncertain, the mad.
He holds out to her the newspaper and this shining platinum flower from the sea.
And all he knows is Please take this fish from my hands. His heart in spasm: please keep standing there, hand on doorframe and dripping hair and green dress casting its light on your skin, please open your hands for this simple offered thing.”

Wood’s novel makes pretenses of being a simple one but as events unfold Jocelyn’s life, and the plot, become ever more crowded with family, desires and conflicting priorities. She doesn’t want to be married, she doesn’t want to be at home, her relationship with Martin takes on a carefree ease when grounded in the natural environment but is constantly at odds with social mores. Her relationship with her sister is no less fraught and bound to duty. In both relationships there is the weight of obligation. Martin allows her to transcend that weight, or ignore it for a time, until events intervene. Then all characters take on even greater, more extreme forms of obligation and willingly accept their own isolation. This is getting weird because I’m trying really hard to avoid spoilers. And therein lies the problem.

Wood’s prose is simple but evocative, I just love the way she writes. But this novel takes a deviation about halfway through that I confess lost me a bit. I did however, read this novel in two bursts, life intervened halfway through, and perhaps I missed some continuity by doing so. I just couldn’t fathom the motivation of the characters at all no matter how gorgeous the prose. The end is artful, but mystifying. It’s that second half that kept The Submerged Cathedral from getting that fifth star.

The Submerged Cathedral by Charlotte Wood: four stars.

Read it for: really beautiful writing, artful description of place and desire, a truly Australian read.

About Rachel Watts

I am a writer from Perth, Western Australia. My speculative fiction novella Survival will be released in early 2018. View all posts by Rachel Watts

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