Charlotte Wood, Stone Yard Devotional

Charlotte Wood, Stone Yard Devotional. Sceptre, 2023 

I posted four years ago on Australian author Charlotte Wood’s previous novel, The Weekend (link HERE). The producer of the BBC World Service programme World Book Club contacted me to invite me (with others from around the world) to pose some questions to Charlotte during the recording of an interview/phone-in on that novel. The programme was broadcast on 11 April (link HERE), and it’s well worth listening to on the BBC website: Charlotte gives engaging and thoughtful insights into her creative processes.

I referred in my post on The Weekend to the barbed revelations spliced with wit and humour in her narrative; Stone Yard Devotional has a more meditative, reflective tone. It’s a very different reading experience, rewarding and deeply moving.

The unnamed narrator tries a weekend retreat at a rural Australian abbey inhabited by nuns and a few oblates (a word she is unfamiliar with at first, and I had to look it up to remind myself) and itinerant visitors. Soon afterwards, for reasons that are only obliquely presented, she decides to become a permanent resident. I say that because she’s a lapsed Catholic, and views the rituals, prayers and worship of the nuns with a dispassionate, unbeliever’s detachment and scepticism. Her presence there has more to do it seems with the desire (as another character puts it) to become invisible to the outside world. It’s a kind of spiritual and emotional cleansing, perhaps.

There are various references to her life in that outside world. There are passing references to a man who was probably her husband or partner. She was an activist in that worldly life for an ecological organisation. Her commitment to green causes and reverence for all living things were formed, we learn at various points in the narrative, from the influence of her mother. She was an eco-warrior before this became fashionable, and was viewed with suspicion by her contemporaries because of it.

Most of the narrative consists of diary-like first-person reflections on the protagonist’s past experience. She tells of shameful incidents in which she played an ignoble role while at her Catholic girls’ school (and afterwards). One of the targets of the schoolgirls’ cruelty plays a key part in the story that unfolds during this abbey retreat.

She’s also frank and honest about her previous thoughtless acts of racism and other kinds prejudiced behaviour. Such attitudes were shamefully prevalent not so long ago, and it’s salutary to be reminded that they haven’t completely gone away.

Other events in her past drift by like linked short stories. Wood’s prose is a pleasure to read: it’s deceptively simple and lucid, yet conveys depths of feeling and reflection that other more wordy writers fail to pull off. Reading this novel is like being given direct access to the innermost thoughts of a troubled woman. She has an excruciating sense of guilt and contrition at some of her actions in the past.

Forgiveness becomes a central theme: the desire for absolution that she finds beyond the capacity of any formal religious intervention, but is possibly available to those who submit themselves to a different, personal kind of disciplined, solitary contemplation, confession and reflection.

Redemption and forgiveness do possibly emerge for her in powerful, sensitively handled scenes in which she interacts with a former victim of her unreflecting cruelty. What is forgiveness, and why is it sought and given?

 A kind of peace is painfully achieved as she writes the confessional that forms this narrative.

Mrs TD read this novel after me, and also found it quietly moving, but she didn’t care for the sections about a plague of mice, and especially the part played by the nuns’ chickens in attempting to control the mouse population.

My thanks to Cornwall library service for providing this book.