The Children is about a family of three adult children gathering after their father has a serious accident and lies in a coma in hospital. Its set in a fictional Northern NSW town and is very definitively Australian, and the first Charlotte Wood story I’ve read.
Mandy, a foreign correspondent and the eldest daughter returns from an overseas posting and is the main character, whose history carries the plot. Her brother Stephen and sister Cathy are also present. Its an intricate study of how siblings interact with each other and how those patterns of interactions are set from a young age and are devilishly difficult to break out of.
The strength of Wood’s writing is in the fine detail she includes. Its almost as if she watches daily life with a microscope and reproduces it. Its in the character’s experiences – ‘the thick, syrupy traveller’s sleep’ Mandy falls into in the car on the way home and the nurses ‘twirling keys on lanyards’. But it’s also in the descriptions of small town Australia – the girl who cleans the windscreen at the service station, was ‘pregant in year 9’ and ‘this is the shame of a country town, Mandy thinks; that people can watch your first mistake and predict the rest.’ Her reproduction of the boredom and hopelessness of country towns is one of the best I’ve read in a long time.
The story focuses on how each of the family members respond to their father’s accident, but also to being back in close contact with each other in the family home. Mandy is struggling with reconciling the bored peacefulness of Australia with the war zones and horrific scenes she’s experienced, and Stephen is fighting against the competitiveness he’s always had with his sister. I felt that the story of their mother and her reactions to her children could have been given more space. We learn at the start of her unrealised dreams for herself but this is never explored further.
But I’ve got a major criticism of this story and that’s with the climax. Tony, a local man is introduced into the story early, a nurse at the hospital, who knows a secret that relates to the time when Mandy lived in the town. She at first doesn’t recognise him, and then doesn’t remember what he might be referring to. When she eventually does realise his secret, it doesn’t seem to have had a big impact on her in the past or when she returns. But Tony is deranged and therefore easy fodder to create a stunning climax by behaving predictably irrationally. My issue is that Tony could have been left out of the story and it would not have been any less compelling, but would have lost its climax. I just felt betrayed as a reader that he’d almost been thrown in to provide a plot device to generate the climax.
Anyway, my annoyance over the contrived climax aside, I really enjoyed this and loved Wood’s writing. It’s a brilliant portrait of the dysfunction that exists in all families and how we manage it. And it also deals well with how people manage trauma they have witnessed back in the safe world in which we live in Australia.