Stone Yard Devotional by Charlotte Wood

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Charlotte Wood has won accolades for her previous work and her tenth novel will surely win superlatives too.

It is set in the harsh landscape of the Monaro, where she spent her childhood. The narrator remains unnamed but a complex thoughtful woman emerges nonetheless. She abandons her marriage to husband, Alex, and visits an Abbey peopled by a small group of nuns living spartanly on the outskirts of the town where she grew up. She later returns and lives there for the duration of the book although she is not religious, and does not believe in prayer, yet she becomes part of this strange, reclusive life.

The slow rhythm of the nuns’ days glide by.  The narrator’s description of this is keenly observed with a lightness of touch which manages to be very powerful. This is a skill that characterises much of Wood’s writing.

While days divide into prayer according to the Catholic rites, three events shatter the routine of the six women.

Firstly there is the news that Sister Jenny, who left the Abbey years ago to work with the poorest people of Thailand, has been found. Rather her remains, which will be shipped back to Australia where the bones will be buried with due respect. It is obvious that she had been murdered. Helen Parry, who grew up in the nearby town, will accompany the coffin home.

This triggers the narrator’s memories of her school days when Helen was cruelly treated by her schoolmates and her own mother. Simultaneously, the narrator admits that Helen Parry is renowned for fighting for justice, supporting the poor, protecting the environment, risking her life at the scene of catastrophes. Helen is remote but strongly self-contained, dedicating her entire life to such causes. She emerges as a fascinating complex character.

This disruption to their quiet days is compounded by the arrival of a mouse plague. As the creatures multiply at a shocking rate, they swarm and devour everything available…even resorting to cannibalism. The accounts of their overrunning the area are shudderingly horrific as is the desperate, often futile attempts to deal with the infestation.

None of this is sensational in tone. The calm descriptions add to the impact of the mice’s revolting voracious frenzy.

Paragraphs and chapters are often brief which convey an impression of memories suddenly surfacing or thoughts being stimulated. Collectively, a tapestry emerges of the narrator’s past and current experience. This is beautifully handled, and ensures that the reader is constantly enthralled.

Amidst these disturbances, the woman considers profound questions. Can a person be truly good? What is the nature of forgiveness? Is it mutually possible? Is losing hope a serious moral defeat? Can there be a finite end to grief?

As the title suggests, the subject matter of Stone Yard Devotional confronts some thought-provoking issues, which less gifted writers would avoid. Charlotte Wood, in courageously examining such subjects, has written a deeply moving, unforgettable novel.

Less than 300 pages in length, it carries enormous weight in its deeply perceptive view of life’s conundrums.

Stone Yard Devotional


by Charlotte Wood

Allen and Unwin

ISBN 978 176106 949 9

$32.99; 294pp


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