The Submerged Cathedral by Charlotte Wood

‘Love is stronger than death .’

There are four parts to this novel, as it touches on the lives of Martin and Jocelyn.  The key years are 1963, 1964, 1975 and 1984.

In 1963, Martin and Jocelyn meet, and fall in love.  Jocelyn has a home in the mountains, Martin has a home near a Sydney beach.  While Jocelyn is happy to live with Martin, she doesn’t want to marry.

‘She held out her own hand and put it into his, and he held it fast, and  as she stepped across that gap she knew her childhood was finished.’

Martin is a doctor. Jocelyn has a contract to proofread ‘The Completed Illustrated Encyclopedia of Australia’.  She is halfway through her contract and up to volume six. Those parts of the Encyclopaedia dedicated to Australian fauna particularly interest Jocelyn and inspire her to create a garden.  Martin and Jocelyn are happy together, in their own form of paradise.  And then, Jocelyn receives a letter.  Her older sister Ellen is coming home, bringing her small daughter and is three months pregnant.  Ellen is leaving her husband.

Jocelyn returns to the mountains and, while Martin visits, Jocelyn’s focus on Ellen and her daughter leave little time and space for Jocelyn and Martin.  Ellen decides to return to her husband in the UK, Jocelyn decides to go with her.  She tells Martin.  What happens to two people who are meant to be together but are separated?  The first part of the story occupies the first half of the novel. In the remaining parts of the novel we see first Martin and then Jocelyn as they struggle to find meaning in their lives.  Martin seeks isolation, Jocelyn undertakes a form of pilgrimage.

Years later, Jocelyn returns to Australia and finds a place to establish her garden.  And Martin?

This is one of those beautifully written novels where each word seems to have been perfectly positioned.  I needed to read slowly, to absorb the writing, but wanted to read quickly to find out how it would end.  At various stages I was angry with each of the main characters (and especially with Ellen).  I wanted Martin and Jocelyn to find happiness without some of the painful journeying that each was required to do.  I wanted images of barren desert, an absence of belief (in self) and the sense of desertion replaced with fruitful gardens, with beauty and a sense of belonging.

This is a novel which invites the reader to feel, to experience what Jocelyn and Martin are going through, and to think about why.  It is also a novel which, one day, I will reread.

‘Is a garden always a gift?’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


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