Stone Yard Devotional by Charlotte Wood is yet another stunning piece of prose from this masterful writer. Her writing is superb. Splendid. Beautiful. And Wood is an excellent storyteller. The strangest thing for me about this book however is that I was waiting to understand what the book was about. Unlike The Natural Way of Things, I didn’t think it was a huge metaphor that eluded me, rather I kinda understood it was about a middle-aged woman undergoing a crisis of identity. Not a mid-life crisis, but one in which she’s questioning her purpose. There’s a part early in the novel where she talks about the nuns constantly interrupting their work each day to attend services in the church. But then realises that IS their work. I think I felt the same way about this book. I was waiting for the story arc to kick in amidst the quiet reverie of life at the retreat and memories of our narrator’s past. But it never did. Her contemplation – of the past and present IS the story.
Stone Yard Devotional
by Charlotte Wood
Published by Allen and Unwin
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Literary Fiction
A woman abandons her city life and marriage to return to the place she grew up, finding solace in a small religious community hidden away on the stark plains of the Monaro.
She does not believe in God, doesn't know what prayer is, and finds herself living this strange, reclusive life almost by accident. As she gradually adjusts to the rhythms of monastic life, she ruminates on her childhood in the nearby town. She finds herself turning again and again to thoughts of her mother, whose early death she can't forget.
Disquiet interrupts this secluded life with three visitations. First comes a terrible mouse plague, each day signalling a new battle against the rising infestation.
Second is the return of the skeletal remains of a sister who left the community decades before to minister to deprived women in Thailand - then disappeared, presumed murdered.
Finally, a troubling visitor to the monastery pulls the narrator further back into her past.
With each of these disturbing arrivals, the woman faces some deep questions. Can a person be truly good? What is forgiveness? Is loss of hope a moral failure? And can the business of grief ever really be finished?
When the (unnamed*) narrator first arrives – for a short visit – she’s at a crossroads in her life. We don’t get a lot of detail other than the fact her husband has moved overseas and she doesn’t think she’ll follow… but she’s obviously got stuff on her mind.
There’s a jarring transition as our narrator suddenly packs up and returns home. And equally jarring to then leap forward several years when she’s back and now a resident at the monastery. I felt a little cheated. As if I’d missed the thought processes that went into making the decision to leave her life, though Wood deftly shares others’ anger and grief at her decision.
People who choose this life are not supposed to go around causing such terrible pain to people. It’s cruel.
Yet I know this much: everyone here has hurt someone by coming. p 60
The lives of the women at the retreat are briefly changed when the remains of a former resident (murdered overseas) are returned to the monastery. They’re accompanied by a celebrity nun of sorts, someone our narrator knew when she attended the local school. I thought perhaps this might ground the plot into feeling more substantial. But it didn’t, other than to have our narrator reflect more on her life.
I did enjoy this book and Wood’s writing is absolutely stunning. But I kept waiting for something to happen. Something to give this story some meaning…
A feeling that something is coming, waiting to be born, out of this time. Almost physical, like before a period, or a pregnancy, or vomiting. Something is getting ready to resolve itself. p 254
Eventually I decided the book itself is a reflection. An examination of a life lived or not lived. It touches on faith, on purpose, on life and death. And ultimately it’s about grieving a life burdened by grief.
As I swept it came to me that my inability to get over my parents’ deaths has been a source of lifelong shame to me. I used to think that time, adulthood, would clean it away, but no. It recedes sometimes but then it returns and I’m eternally stuck; a lumbering, crying, self-pitying child. The fact of grief quickly making itself know, again and again. p 280
Stone Yard Devotional by Charlotte Wood was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.