The Submerged Cathedral by Charlotte Wood


I’m sad to say this is another fine book that I’m confident that no one I know will read. I bought it through Amazon because the author recently won the Stella Prize ($50,000 prize open to Australian women writers) for another of her books. This 2004 book struck me as being a good way to begin to read her work and that turned out to be a fortuitous decision. This was a terrific book and I look forward to reading more by her.

This is a love story about two people who are immoderate. After a lovely courtship which began with the presentation of a fish wrapped in newspaper, Martin asked Jocelyn to marry him. She declined because marriage was unappealing to her. She had previously broken an engagement when she saw that her loved one was unfaithful to her, as her father had been to her mother. Her refusal to marry seemed an immoderate reaction. Nevertheless, she and Martin had an idyllic summer together.


That was ended when her pregnant sister and daughter returned from England to escape a violent husband. Jocelyn gives up her new life to return to their old home in the Blue Mountains to care for the unpleasant and unreliable Ellen and little Sandra. Martin who is a doctor comes on weekends from his island home north of Sydney to see Jocelyn and take care of Ellen. Near the end of Ellen’s  pregnancy, he convinces Jocelyn, exhausted from caring for her sister and niece, to take a short trip with him. Of course the worst happens while they are gone and the doctor who stepped in was unable to save the baby.

This caused Ellen and Sandra to return to England, Jocelyn to go with her, and Ellen to repudiate Jocelyn on the street before flying into the arms of the abusing husband. And the relationship of Jocelyn and Martin is severed. Poor Martin goes into a tailspin and eventually lands in a woebegone monastery. Jocelyn never sees her sister or niece again. Jocelyn recovers nicely and eventually has the means to return to Australia with money enough to create the garden she always dreamed of. And she does it completely on her own at the abandoned monastery. Perhaps you can imagine how this ends.

I was completely enthralled with this book and enjoyed every moment. It was only when I was away from it that I was able to reason that the reaction of all parties to the sad loss was immoderate. Not only was blame unfairly assigned, it was completely accepted by all parties. Still, if we were all rational beings, no one would want to read about us.

Charlotte Wood, Submerged Cathedral, Vintage Book, Random House, 2004, 297 pages.

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