Though I did not live in Australian when it was published, I am still a little surprised that I had never heard of Charolotte Wood’s 2004 novel The Submerged Cathedral, if only because its concerns closely echo my own: the sacred, the environment, travel and displacement, and the fragility of human relationships.
In the first section of this book Martin and Joss meet and begin to build a life together. Gradually, against a backdrop of family obligations, they begin to make some compromises which challenge the couple, both together and as individuals. Every interaction and every relationship dynamic in this first section felt so honest and true that it almost ached to read it.
Later, as Joss’ and Martin’s lives begin to push out into the world in various ways, the book seems to empty out. Martin follows the sacred, Joss the dream of a garden. Both of these paths seem hollow and though they each encounter symbols of the others’ path – for Joss her fascination with cathedrals, for Martin his work cultivating a vegetable garden – Woods allows her characters no shortcuts. She misdirects their correspondence and isolates them geographically so that the ache continues but now it is the ache of loss, emptiness and not knowing.
Martin’s journey in the centre of the book is difficult for the reader to understand. His life takes a turn that seems insufficiently motivated and the reader is simply asked to go with it, which perhaps compromises the resonance that this section might have had if we felt Martin’s own commitment to his new life, or the strength of the convictions he apparently holds.
The brief closing section of this book is earned and still it feels a little unsatisfactory. Somehow the emptiness of their time apart moves in to inhabit the book and a bittersweet, lonely, loss-filled close refuses to deliver the dream that The Submerged Cathedral allowed us to dream – that of a sacred and beautiful place where Joss and Martin might be finally allowed to find a home. Perhaps Wood herself could not quite believe in her own scaffolding. Perhaps she could not quite credit the idea of a real-world equivalent of the cathedral of the title, or of the Eden to which Joss constantly returns in her thinking, without it’s counterweight: Gethsemane. In the end it is emptiness and perhaps even the idea of being submerged, that remains.
I am very glad to have discovered this book and I know I will return to it.