Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Charlotte Wood's The weekend

It was a full house when Minervans met for the first time in 2020 to discuss our first book of the year, Charlotte Wood's The weekend. It seemed a fitting book for a group that has been meeting for over 30 years, several of whom have known each other for those 30 years and more.

The book is about three women (Jude, Wendy and Adele), now in their 70s, who have been friends for around 40 years and have come together for a weekend to clean out the house of the fourth friend (Sylvie) who had died about a year previously. During the weekend, various cracks in their friendship are revealed, but so is their love and loyalty.

First impressions

As usual, we started by asking everyone for their first impressions, which fell into two rather clear camps:

  • alright; ambivalent; characters are types; liked it at the start but then started to feel ho-hum about it; too long
  • loved it; it captured women's friendships well, particularly the agonies and ecstasies over long periods of time and the dynamics of friendship groups; enjoyed the humour

Interestingly, none of those who didn't like it mentioned the humour, while several of those who did like it specifically mentioned the humour! However, everyone did enjoy something about the evocation of friendships, with most people relating to the book personally in one way or another. For some it resonated closely with experiences they had had.

One of those who liked it didn't like the melodramatic "party" scene near the end. One who didn't like it commented that the death near the end of one woman's lover helped Wood create an ending for her book but didn't actually resolve anything.

Several commented on different aspects of the writing, such as the wonderful opening scene in which Wendy is in her broken-down car on the highway, the description of the inclinator, the wave metaphor at the end, and other descriptions and images.

The rest of the discussion

With 12 in attendance, the discussion then scampered all over the place, from idea to idea, point to point, but I'll try to bring it together. We discussed the role of Finn the ageing dog, who, we learnt, was not in the original story. Most of us liked Finn, but one member found it difficult to accept a dog who really should have been euthanised. The women's reactions to Finn tell us something about their characters. Also, Finn's simply "being"  (his "simple creatureliness") provides a foil for the women's ideas about life's meaning or goals, and his ageing body reflects, if not symbolises, the ageing bodies of the women (and their fear of ageing, not to mention death and dying.)

In a lesser way, the inclinator also works as a useful device for conveying information about the women's characters, from Adele's not using it because of her "use it or lose it" philosophy to overweight Wendy with the frail dog having no choice really.

We didn't talk as much about ageing as we might but one member was interested in the idea of when have you "finished". Wendy and Adele, for example, both feel they have more to achieve - Wendy, the intellectual idea she feels she's moving towards, and Adele, her big role - while Jude's goal seems to be finding things to talk about/share/offer up when her married lover (of forty years) sees her. When you no longer have formal, professional goals, what goals do you have, where do they come from, and what happens when you, perhaps, no longer have goals or purpose?

We also briefly discussed children - and the point when the power balance shifts from parents being parents of their children to being parented by their children! Wendy experiences this in the book.

Wood, we felt, is clearly up on the contemporary problem of homeless older women, as by the end, two of the three are, or potentially are, without a home.

Regarding friendships, we talked about how people can know each other for a long time but still not know each other (see Quote of the night below, perhaps!) One member pondered whether friends made when young (even those sustained over a long time) would in fact become friends if you met them much later. Another member commented how it was Adele, the one the others frequently saw as "the child" of the group, is the one who takes control when a major crisis comes. We felt that Wood had captured well the complexity of friendships, and the individual baggages that people bring to friendships.

A member commented that the women never reminisce about Sylvie, which you might expect. This resulted in a discussion about the women's self-absorption. One member felt they lacked warmth.

In terms of the writing, we talked about the alternating points of view as we moved between the women's heads, and the fact that book is more one of vignettes than a single narrative, which might explain why we don't hear the women sitting down and reminiscing about their late friend. One member wasn't convinced about the set-up, that is, the women coming together to clean out their friend's house when there was a partner who could have done it.

We also talked about the "house-party" genre of books/fiction, into which this fits. Some members immediately recalled the film The big chill and one referred to John Clanchy's novel The sisters.

We shared some favourite pieces of writing, such as:

this description of Wendy by Adele:

the planes of her mighty cheekbones and jaw had tilted somehow, inwards and down, so that to Adele it seemed she'd begun, impossibly but surely, to look really very much like Patrick White.

this by Jude on sister-in-law Catherine's reading group:

Catherine's bookclub worked doggedly through the Booker shortlist, coming down on the side of the winner if they knew the author already, against if they didn't.

and this by Wendy of young Australians, who

now spoke with American accents, pronouncing their r's at the end of words, and saying "afterr", the "a" like in apple. Why was this? The Western world had blurred itself into one jellied cultural mess. 
We talked about about Wood, the fact that she's in her 50s and has no children. We thought she had well captured women who are 20 years older than she, and that she must know and have observed carefully such women, their changing friendships, bodies and perceptions.

Finally, we felt the novel touched on rather a lot of "stuff". Some of us felt we identified with one or two of the three women, while others saw all three women in themselves at different times. At the end of the discussion, we all agreed that, whether we individually liked the book or not, it offered a good description of what happens between friends, and that therefore, in fact, it is a "good" book!

Quote of the night

One member reminded us of the saying that everyone has three lives - a public life, a private life, and a secret life - and suggested that this book is very much about the secret life.

Present: 12 members

Monday, 13 January 2020

Tim Winton’s The shepherd’s hut

The shepherd's hut, the latest addition to Tim Winton’s oeuvre, is considered one of his best for many years according to many of our Minerva members.

This novel has a very minor plot – violent Dad is found dead and teenage son is extremely worried that he will be suspected of killing him. The boy leaves home and walks away not caring or knowing where he is going. He almost dies in the Western Australian desert until he finds a hut where an elderly former priest lives as a hermit. They develop a bond and the young boy starts to recover from the abuse and difficulties of his life.

[SPOILER ALERT] Inevitably the priest is killed by 2 guys who think the priest has discovered their marijuana plantation. It is the characters' relationships that carry this work and make it so distinctive and so memorable.

First impressions

  • Very clever
  • Found the language very challenging and distasteful
  • Personalities are fantastic
  • Compelling reading
  • Atmosphere – slow and moody – would be great as a movie with music complimenting the slow pace
  • Some language is a bit jargonistic – Tim Winton moves in the circles of people who swear constantly
  • Description of nature and love of WA landscape wonderful
  • A religious story – with a biblical feel
  • Reminded one member of Voss by Patrick White with the descriptions of the landscape
  • Loved the last 2 sentences – ‘And peace is on its way. It fucking better be.’ (p. 267) Felt that summed up that at heart Jaxie Clackton was a good guy – although he was continually worried that he wasn’t.
  • Winton really gets the landscape, drew me in
  • What was he trying to say? Was it about a cynical priest trying to redeem a young person?
  • Very masculine novel – fascinating and tough – males in extremis?
  • Very impressive opening passage – hinting at trials ahead or to put it another way – something ending and something beginning
  • Jaxie feels he is a scapegoat as he has been outcast most of his life by his family and by school and his peers – this becomes almost biblical
  • He has been a violent young man – ‘I have been a dirty goat’ and ‘I’m no type of beast anymore’
  • One member realised that there is no sea or surf in this Winton novel which is most unusual
  • Couldn’t understand why the priest Fintan was stuck in the desert as it isn’t explained – he is a flawed wise man and not a paedophile 
  • Implausible scenario but that does not detract from the biblical allusions – Jesus in the desert -- 40 days etc


There were differing opinions about the language – the majority of members did not mind it as it seemed appropriate – the others found it disturbing but it did not detract from their admiration for the novel. The swearing includes all words commonly used as well as some which are not used so often. Jaxie is a boy of little education so the sentences are short and blunt and raw but very understandable, even when he uses lots of slang.

We found the names of the characters quite Dickensenian – and they also reminded one reader of Terry Prachett’s names.

The two main characters speak in their own languages which at times are totally authentic and natural.



Jaxie is a traumatised young man, probably suffering from PTSD caused by his abusive, butcher father. Jaxie recognises early on that he is full of pent up anger at the world and with himself.

We discussed how he was ‘driven’ to love his first cousin Lee as he was so lacking in love from his parents. It is often the way that abused children find succour in relationships which cannot be approved.

Jaxie’s mother didn’t protect him and he was bullied at school and he didn’t have any friends due to his bad behaviour.

We admired Jaxie’s strong drive to survive and go forward despite the numerous trials with objects eg the binoculars in particular. He wanted to learn and he listened to the priest and they developed a bond.

His view of himself was as an outcast thrown out by Capt Wankbag (his father).

As Jaxie is the narrator we only hear his side of the story so we only see his experiences from his point of view.

There is a lot of slaughter in this novel – especially of kangaroos and goats in order for humans to survive. Another aspect of his violence was illustrated graphically in the story of the killing of the cats. It was confronting but he did it when his father was too lazy or dissolute to assist the cat owner. It was brutal but in context.

We briefly discussed the issue of small towns keeping secrets about family life and others not willing to be involved even though the young ones and the mothers often were regularly in danger. This was also an issue in Karen Viggers’ recent novel – The orchardist’s daughter.

In contrast we also talked about his happy times when the extended family got together and he became friends with Lee. These are the only bright times in his short life.

Jaxie also did not have big goals in life – he just wants peace – which is completely understandable considering his upbringing.


Fintan the priest was ministering to Jaxie – trying to create a space for him. He was also mentoring him and trying to assist him. He recognised that Jaxie was a battered boy and did not have a heart of gold. Fintan wants peace too but is happy to share his peace with the boy.


One member who grew up in the country felt that Winton captured the reality of country life beautifully and very specifically in the killing of animals to survive. This is despite the author’s different upbringing near the sea.

Another member felt that Winton is as good as Elizabeth Jolley in capturing the landscape of WA. It was interesting, this member said, that Winton is ‘allowed’ to call the native trees by their WA names,  so we get ‘Yorkies’ for instance, when other writers have to conform to the Australian terminology .


The point of the novel is the making of a man – will his girl friend be happy to meet him at the end of his adventure? Why did it take Jaxie so long to shoot the Fintan’s torturers? It was a very difficult situation for anybody let alone a teenager who had never shot anyone before.

Present: 9 members