Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Many writers use the framework of several complete strangers coming together in a particular location for their stories. During their stay the reader becomes privy to some of their innermost fears and incidents which have been weighing them down.
In her latest book, The Long Weekend, Fiona Palmer chooses to use the same format, but this does not take away from an interesting and engaging story. The reader does learn about the secrets of four strangers who enrol in a writing workshop held by a bestselling author. The venue is set among the tall trees, in the Busselton area of Western Australia. Although the landscape does not play a major role in the storyline it adds to the atmosphere of seclusion where people feel free to release their most deeply suppressed feelings and unpleasant memories.
Each chapter in this book is dedicated to a particular character in the story, except for the workshop presenter whose story is entwined through one of the participant’s segments. Yet her story is just as revealing as the others. The Prologue immediately grips the reader’s attention with a desire to know more. Having this need satisfied the reader is left with a warm fuzzy feeling knowing that ‘Through the flames had come a friendship’ and not just for ‘two kindred spirits who had lost so much and needed to find their way back to happiness’ (292).
This is a book about shame, embarrassment and regret but also letting go, compassion and forgiveness. This is also a love story which developed from the chance meeting.
Fiona Palmer has a wonderful way of making her characters feel very human. She also has a deep understanding of issues that can affect everyday life. In this story she highlights the overweight, those who feel unloved, and those suffering from postnatal depression as well as the sensitive male in a family of AFL players. All these issues are addressed with authority and understanding.
But there is an unusual aspect to this storyline. The main characters attend this retreat to learn how to write a novel and each has their own reasons for being there. As information from the seminar is imparted to the participants, the reader can’t help but compare the writing of the novel itself with the information revealed in the workshop.
The attendees are told that a key element to a successful book is to show not tell, but also ‘If you want to write a strong, moving piece you must make your readers feel. Emotion is complex. We never experience a single, isolated emotion. Instead, they wash through us, continually changing, each with many layers of conflicting thoughts and feelings’ (75). I found many examples of this in Fiona Palmer’s writing and there were times when my eyes felt moist.
She has a beautiful writing style, getting information across to her readers with dramatic images- ‘heart racing skin slick. As if on a boat, she seemed to roll through the waves, sometimes calm and the next minute a full-on storm’ (156). ‘(She) started to feel like a deer stuck in a lion enclosure, no exits, nowhere to run’ (173).
This story also provides sage advice for “wellness”. Some memories are painful but letting them go is a way of unloading burdens – ‘feeling so far out of your depth, out of control, not knowing what would happen next. But sometimes a shake-up was exactly what was needed’ (278).
What I did feel was a bit jarring, in an otherwise faultless narrative, was the similar statements on a couple of pages not far apart. ‘They both had enough drama in their lives to write ten soap operas’ (226) and ‘There was enough drama unfolding here to write a few books’ (230). I was also a little surprised at the mistake towards the bottom of page fourteen for such a well-known author and publishing house. However, neither of these took away from the enjoyment of the read.
It is always a pleasure to read Fiona Palmer’s books. I would recommend her latest book, The Long Weekend, which as well as providing an interesting story, acknowledges the benefits of workshops or retreats for all writers.
The Long Weekend
by Fiona Palmer