Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 8, 2008

The Children by Charlotte Wood

childrenThe Children is an unfortunate title; it’s not appealing and it made me leave this book unread on the TBR for quite some time. Yet it’s a clever title, because the adult protagonists of this novel behave exactly like children do: they’re immature, impulsive, selfish and irrational. Just like people, just like children.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

Uncharacteristically, I wrote about this book a fortnight after reading it, and found myself not able to remember all the characters very well.  This was not entirely my memory lapse – the mother is deliberately not very well drawn.  Her husband has fallen from a ladder and is on life support – he exists only in memory. The mother seems lost in a fog of her own emotion, already she is ceasing to be a person in her own right (if she ever was) but is now someone hurt by others, needing to be supported but irrelevant to the lives of children who still have a life to live.

Mandy is the most decisively drawn character.  She’s a war correspondent, tortured by flashbacks of atrocities she’s witnessed, especially the gruesome death of a little boy in Iraq.  She is angry that no one in safe, complacent Australia understands or cares, and this anger spills out throughout the story.  It can be triggered by seemingly trivial things like trendy restaurants appropriating an ethnic recipe and getting it wrong, and it alienates her long-suffering husband – who really is a bit too good to be true.  He stays because he has no other family and is close to the mother, but really – he should move on!

Lurline posted that there was not much growth in these characters, and she’s right, but I think that Wood is too good an author to have done this by accident.  I think it’s meant to show how they are all trapped by the dying body in the hospital.  Nothing can be decisive till he dies, and then a decent interval of time must elapse.  Not only that, but people tend to kid themselves at such a time: ‘oh, we must keep in touch/see more of each other‘; or ‘we’re such a close-knit family because (or if only) we come together at times like this’.  I wonder if Wood is thinking of a sequel, perhaps along the lines of Steven Carroll’s The Art of the Engine Driver trilogy?

Stephen is an interesting character.  He abandoned his family after a row with his father, and he seems a bit of a wastrel.  There’s a curious sequence where he tries to recreate making and flying a kite with his father, but it seems it’s not his memory at all: he ‘remembers’ what others have told him, because he wants to have had a close relationship with his father.  (Or anyone, perhaps).

Woven into all these family dynamics is the oddball wardsman.  He insinuates himself into the situation despite admonitions from staff and ends up taking a gun to Mandy as she sits by her father’s bedside.  He’s got it into his head that they think he’s inconsequential vermin, and there’s a shocking finale.  Ironically, the closest Mandy comes to death is this incident, and it triggers her realisation that there are important things to witness here in Australia: her family, and maybe even her husband.

It’s a compelling book. I like this author very much.

Charlotte Wood is also the author of The Submerged Cathedral, shortlisted for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award. The Children was shortlisted in the Australian Book Industry Awards 2008 category of Literary Fiction Book of the Year.

Author: Charlotte Wood
Title: The Children
Publisher: Allen & Unwin 2007
ISBN:9781741756043
Source: Personal copy


Responses

  1. […] close observer of family dynamics, Forster reminds me of Charlotte Wood at her best (in The Children, and in Animal People). There is that same genius at capturing the hostilities of children and […]


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