Charlotte's web

HE was on his way to join a monastery in Victoria, she was a 19-year-old florist with a sense of adventure when they met and "fell madly in love" on the ship bringing them from England. On their arrival in Australia, they planned to explain their changed situations to their patrons, then meet up. After a couple of weeks, however, she received an apologetic letter; he had been persuaded to give monastic life a go.

Trapped thousands of kilometres from home and feeling oppressed as a nanny in Perth, she was shattered. A year later, when her work took her to Melbourne, she caught a bus from the city, then walked 12km to the monastery. "I see her as a stunningly beautiful young woman," says her daughter Charlotte Wood, "striding across the paddocks past dazed monks working on the farm, their habits rucked above their knees. The next day, in a small parlour in the monastery, my dad asked her to marry him." For Wood, the second daughter of the couple's five children, her parents' love story was a "beautiful family legend" that fired her childhood imagination. Forty years after their marriage it became the literary catalyst for Wood's second novel, The Submerged Cathedral.

"I'd grown up with their story but I couldn't write it because it was so contained already -- it left me nowhere to go. But it was a potent leaping-off point, and the love story that followed became an adventure into the unknown. I wanted ..." she searches for the apt words, "something bigger and deeper than just the two people. I found myself exploring ideas I didn't know were there when I started. After it was written, I began to realise it was about faith and creativity, and doubt and redemption. And I discovered what Peter Carey meant when he said about writing that 'I need time and solitude to work out what it is that I think'." The multilayered, wide-ranging tale that resulted touches on allegory (think paradise and exile) as it weaves family fable, biblical allusion and modern mores with engrossing acumen. It's also very different from her haunting first novel, Pieces of a Girl, a cryptic exploration of spiritual malevolence via a tangle of family relations tainted by remorse and reproach. That novel won critical acclaim, the Jim Hamilton award for an unpublished manuscript and commendation among The Sydney Morning Herald's best young novelists in 2000. The Submerged Cathedral should win readers by word-of-mouth enthusiasm.

In her late 30s, Wood is tanned and willowy, and patently apprehensive. She wanted to be a window-dresser as a child but instead became a journalist courtesy of a cadetship on the newspaper in her NSW home town of Cooma and a degree from Charles Sturt University in Bathurst; she knows both sides of the mike -- and would definitely rather not be the inquisitee. We had arranged originally to meet at her "student-digs looking" terrace in inner-city Sydney before her publisher had a creative brainwave: Why not talk over lunch at the Cottage Point Inn, overlooking the Pittwater panorama north of Sydney that features in her novel? And which is only a sailboat tack or two away from Mackerel Beach where she and her musician lover Sean married in casual chaos last November. So as six-seater seaplanes noisily disgorge tourists arriving to dine amid Sydney's surreal summer light and pristine splendour, we soldier through interview interruptus and pan-fried fish of the day.

She credits her husband's influence for expanding her literary mien. She began Pieces of a Girl after her mother's death in 1994: "I just threw myself into it -- when someone close to you dies, things become very clear as to what's important and what's not." That book was essentially about malignance, she says, and it was "no coincidence that I wrote it not long after my mother died. And I don't think it's any coincidence that I wrote this one after I met Sean -- it's a bigger book psychologically, much more outward-looking and more personal." The irony, she says with acerbity, is that "people thought that my mother was a monster and that I dressed as a boy my whole life after Girl was published.

That's because all first novels tend to be judged as autobiographical -- which must mean they can't think this one's autobiographical in any way." Her laugh is more generous than the critics were.

The Submerged Cathedral is certainly laced with autobiographical markers, even if it veers off on imaginative tangents. Its settings include the Blue Mountains in NSW, rural Victoria and Europe, and Wood's research included a trip to Spain to study monastic gardens and a quasi-prodigal return to the monastery where her father was cloistered. ("The monks were very welcoming," she says, "and some even remembered my mother arriving there.")

Writer residencies at Varuna in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains and at Arthur Boyd's property Bundanoon on the NSW south coast helped colour the story's landscape, and her mother's obsession with flowers seeded the creative gardening at the book's heart. She also drew on her parents' tragedy of losing their first child after a day: "Dad was trapped at home by floodwaters and couldn't get to the hospital for a week. Mum had to experience it all by herself." The crowning cruelty was her mother being presented with a bill for the child's burial as she was being discharged from hospital. "I actually found where my brother was buried while I was writing this book," Wood says quietly. "Or at least a plaque at the communal grave. It gave me a sense of some completion."

The benevolent aunt in her tale is also, she admits, something of a self-reflection. "People ask why I don't want to have children and I tell them it's because I want to be an aunt -- I see it as a crucial involvement, one I intend to be long-lasting."

Wood grew up a staunch Catholic, naturally enough given her family background, but now doesn't believe "in God as such. I do believe in the kind of optimistic, communal love that cares and acts about, say, refugees and earthquake victims. Belief can be transforming and the closest I've come to a real, personal understanding of that kind of transformation is through writing a novel. With God, love and creativity, the daily practice of faith in them is the point, not the end result. So you are transformed by the act of faith itself rather than by the possibility of the person loving you back, or by the reward of heaven or by the publication of the novel.

"After all, as novelist Kate Jennings said recently, 'Novels are crapshoots, you can't even hope for them.' She's right. So the reason to do it has to be what you get from the process rather than the result." She smiles and empties her glass, perfectly demonstrating her point.

First published in The Weekend Australian, 28/2/2004. Copyright 2004 Murray Waldren

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