October 31, 2023
'What can we afford to lose?'
Charlotte Wood’s new novel poses big questions about goodness, purpose and sacrifice
Charlotte Wood’s Stone Yard Devotional tells the story of a woman who abandons her city life to live in a rural religious compound. In the vein of her award-winning The Natural Way of Things, Wood continues to explore relationships between women in isolated groups, and more broadly, tensions between the individual and the collective.
Review: Stone Yard Devotional – Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin)
The narrator has left her job and her marriage, choosing to live a simple existence with reclusive nuns. The reader is left to wonder: what has compelled her into this life of quiet? Our unnamed protagonist is sceptical about religion, yet takes her place in the community seriously, focusing on daily tasks with repetition and care, as if devotion is about attention rather than belief.
Wood’s novel is set against the backdrop of COVID. Despite the narrator’s focus on daily life in the compound, the outside world infiltrates. The characters wear masks when making the pilgrimage to town for supplies, and the narrator remembers the external landscape when visitors arrive. Bushfire season begins and a sense of menace “out there” creeps ever closer.
And then, a plague of mice descends. Of all the arrivals, this is the most visceral – the descriptions are brutal in their exquisite detail. The sisters contemplate
what a plague might mean. What would happen if we did nothing? What can we afford to lose, and what must be protected?
The post-COVID reader (if such a thing exists) is reminded that inaction can be another form of action. And even though the nuns set traps, emptying them every hour as the plague grows, they have trouble digging holes big enough to bury all the mice.
The tiny creatures eat through electrical equipment and plastic, into food rations and stores, enforcing a squeamish patience on both narrator and reader. The oven, and then the dishwasher and washing machine, become unusable. “All those [washing] tasks are now to be done by hand: there’s no point replacing the parts until the plague is over.”
Grief, legacy and suspicion
At times, I thought this was a book about grief and legacy – how we remember our parents, how they shape us, how we live for and against their values.
Within two paragraphs of the narrator arriving at the compound, we flash back to her car journey there, stopping at her parents’ graves along the way. The narrator remembers her mother’s gardening, her ancestral hands in the earth.
Further flashbacks emphasise the support and intergenerational trust between the narrator and her mother:
As I grew into my twenties, then thirties […] I began to understand how rare such a simple and powerful trust had been. I wished again that I had been able to say any of this to her when she lived.
This first-person storyteller recounts how her mother was described as a humanitarian, a woman who never ridiculed others’ beliefs. “No matter how outlandish or foolish she may privately have thought it, my mother was a person who respected the fact of belief in and of itself.”
This mother also stood up against prejudice and protected the vulnerable, sometimes to her own detriment. This kind of idea reverberates throughout the book: doing what is “right”, the tension between the self and the group, and how this plays out specifically for women – whether in their relationships with each other or their positions in a community.
Ideas of “rightness”, “risk” and “belonging” are further explored when the skeletal remains of a murdered nun are returned to the compound from Thailand, where she had moved to work with battered women.
Sister Jenny, a dear friend to some of the compound residents, was the victim of gender-based violence. This proves striking within the context of Stone Yard Devotional. The narrator claims to be unconcerned with fostering friendships with the nuns she lives with, even as she identifies with them. The implication is that female friendship itself is something to be wary of.
As she says about one of the nuns, Sister Carmel, when she senses her disapproval, “I used to care about what she and the others thought of me … but I don’t anymore.”
Yet, as a figure from the narrator’s past arrives, escorting Sister Jenny’s bones across international borders – amid COVID travel restrictions – we begin to understand why the narrator might feel suspicious of social groups, female friendship and her own role in past events.
A novel of questions
Despite the declarative nature of the text, the aloof, first-person narration does not invite the reader into the narrator’s head. There is a lack of intimacy to the voice, as though the quiet of living a monastic life has settled into the narrator’s brain. The reader sits with her, observing as the story unfolds. We are watching someone ponder, not confess.
Many of the chapters’ introductory sentences don’t have subjects; they begin with verbs: “Arrive finally at about three”. Or: “Slept poorly”. The reader is witnessing the solitary act of an individual taking notes, or writing in a journal. This is confirmed when the narrator says: “Nobody will read this but me. Even so, I imagine there are things I’m leaving out.”
And it’s further emphasised by a lack of dialogue within the book. We are forced to trust our quiet narrator, because few other characters are allowed to speak for themselves.
Like The Natural Way of Things, this is not a fast-moving page-turner. It’s a text that invites introspection and pondering. Wood writes novels that are important to read. I think about the world in different ways after her characters have entered my consciousness. But her books won’t be hurried – they take their time.
Stone Yard Devotional offers line-by-line writing that haunts, and descriptions and ways of seeing the world that linger. The novel’s ideas and questions have made me consider the complicated nature of belonging as a woman in a patriarchal order where women are frequently pitted against each other, and how complicated female relationships can be.
The narrator remembers her social network in high school: how she took part in bullying a young woman, and how it escalated into assault. In Wood’s novel, we learn girls and women who bully may also feel remorse and try to make amends. We watch the bullied outsider, fearlessly committed to being herself, achieve national fame. We see another outsider-friend become the unfortunate victim of terrifying violence as she pursues her life purpose.
This is a novel of questions. How does the past ripple into the present? How do we live with our past actions? What is the nature of forgiveness? What is the nature of religious belief? How might we understand experiences of the spiritual?
I think, ultimately, it’s a story of memory and sacrifice. It asks what we do and don’t remember of our pasts. And it asks: what are we willing to give up in the name of our life’s purpose?
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