(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99)
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99)
Jude, Adele, Wendy and her geriatric dog Finn are on their way to their friend Sylvie’s beach house for Christmas. But this is to be no holiday – Sylvie has died and the friends are charged with clearing her house. With Sylvie gone the dynamics of the group are thrown off kilter and tensions run as high as emotions. The Weekend is already sweeping up awards for the Sydney-based author whose previous novel, The Natural Way of Things, about a group of kidnapped women, won or was shortlisted for every major literary prize in Australia.
Both The Weekend and The Natural Way of Things explore dynamics among a group of women but this is a far gentler story than your last novel. Did you intentionally set out to write something less outwardly dramatic this time, and do you think “domestic” fiction is unfairly trivialised?
I needed an antidote to the darkness of The Natural Way of Things, and in any case each of my books often begins as a kind of reaction against the one before. So I did decide to write into joy and humour; I wanted to rest for a little while in a comedy of manners about growing older and women’s friendship. That said, it turns out I don’t do “heart-warming” – it isn’t very interesting to me as a reader or a writer, so there’s more than a drop of acid in the portrayal of my frustrated, intelligent women being delivered some serious shocks about their lives and the illusions they’ve held. The patriarchy has always derided the domestic realm – but equally, real artists have always recognised the power and complexity of relationships as they play out in the home. It’s rich, rich territory for fiction.
Tell us about your fellowship at the University of Sydney and how it informed this story and your own outlook on ageing?
I spent a year working alongside scientists at the Charles Perkins Centre, named for the famous Aboriginal civil rights activist who radically challenged convention and spoke truth to power in Australia from the 1960s onwards. The CPC brings together experts from many different disciplines around the world to explode our ineffective approaches to chronic disease, and having a creative writer in residence is part of that mission. The most radical part of the privately-funded Judy Harris Fellowship is that collaborations between the writer and others arise completely naturally, simply by being in proximity – scientists of many fields, philosophers, physicians, nurses, economists, historians and artists bump up against one another and see what happens. It was an incredibly exciting place to be. In practical terms the ailing geriatric dog, Finn, came into The Weekend directly out of a conversation I had with an evolutionary biologist at the centre, about animal versus human ageing. Finn became an essential part of the novel in many different ways.
The characters in the novel seem to represent a new generation of elderly women – they practice yoga, drive sports cars, publish important books and have same sex relationships. They are also insecure – economically, in relationships and in reputation. Why is such a fascinating and complex demographic so overlooked?
I don’t really know, except that we have a pathological terror and denial of death, and thinking about ageing reminds us we’re going to die. Much better to turn our faces from it completely and pretend none of it exists. I don’t think the activities you list are radically new – it’s just that our images of older women are so terribly outdated: we think of them as benign or bitter cardiganed old biddies knitting in rocking chairs. Nobody I know older than 70 lives that way.
“Boomers” have become much derided by young people for the advantages they were handed and their treatment of the planet. Is it right to call out older generations or should young people respect their elders?
Nobody deserves respect purely because of their age, and I think younger people have a right to absolute fury about the environmental and economic legacy of previous generations. That said, as soon as I hear the words “boomer” or “millennial”, I know a tedious generalisation is about to follow – these types really don’t bear scrutiny when looked at in detail. “Boomer” blaming is also a very convenient distraction from contemporary corporate and political responsibility for environmental catastrophe. If we can simply blame old people and the past, we don’t have to act now.
These women lived through and were even influential in second wave feminism but they are not particularly nice to one another, nor do they seem to like each other much. Is this a symptom of women being pitted against each other and is it something we’re getting better at?
I’m interested how often questions of “niceness” and likeability still come up around women in fiction – the same is not asked or expected of men. To me, feminism means allowing women the full expression of human experience that has always been available to men, so the idea that my characters should behave “nicely” towards each other never entered my head. They’re in grief for a friend who was the glue holding their group together, they’re each losing the cultural power that has defined them, and their friendship of 40 years is being severely tested by private fears and resentments. Being trapped together under pressure forces a cracking open of the illusions they’ve held about themselves for a long time. To me all of that is interesting territory. Behaving nicely? Not so much.
Feminism, animals and food are central themes in this novel and in your wider body of work. Why do you return to them?
Feminism is a large part of who I am, so I probably can’t avoid it. Food is a fascinating lens through which to view character, and a source of tension and power – panic buying of certain foods during the pandemic showed us just how true that is. As for animals, human attitudes toward them reveal an awful lot about our individual natures. But animals in my fiction also seem to have become a way for me to consider other planes of existence: they know things we don’t.
We can no doubt recognise aspects of ourselves in all of the central characters of The Weekend, but if you had to choose – are you a Jude, a Wendy or an Adele?
Sadly for me, I’m all of them – it’s why I often speak of The Weekend as a cautionary self-portrait …