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.

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020. First published in Australia by Allen & Unwin, 2019

An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick… WB Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’

During this pandemic it’s become apparent that there aren’t many terms for people in the final years of their lives that don’t sound patronising or demeaning: the elderly (like the infirm: a category of useless outsiders, surplus to societal requirements). Older people. Older than normal people, is the implication.

Older women in fiction are even scarcer than the men. They often serve as slightly comical or absurd, often acidic commentators on the antics of the more interesting younger people around them – like the battleaxe in Downton Abbey whose name I forget, or the dowagers in Victorian novels who view the perceived shortcomings of the ‘girls’ of marriageable age in their social circles with disapproval.

Fiction writers tend to be more interested in younger people – those who are still useful to society, of breeding age or raising their young, holding down jobs and contributing to the economy – or, if they’re not, finding ways of dealing with this. They have agency.

There are notable exceptions to this tendency. Elizabeth Taylor, more recently, Elizabeth Strout. I’m sure you can think of many more. Devon-based blogger Caroline focuses (among other subjects) on older women in fiction in her Bookword blog (link HERE), and is doing her bit to shift the balance in our perception of this demographic.

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend front coverI was inspired to read Australian author Charlotte Wood’s recent novel The Weekend by a review at Lisa Hill’s ANZ Litlovers blog last December (link HERE) and a follow-up post in May 2020, about the Yarra Yarra writers festival (link HERE). Like a less sentimental Golden Girls, it deals with the bonds and tensions between three women in their early seventies. She does this with frankness, insight and quite a bit of humour. She doesn’t idealise these women: they’re all flawed in their own ways. But they’re all interesting, vulnerable and utterly convincing as characters.

Every Christmas they would gather at the beach house of Sylvie and her partner Gail. This year it’s different – Sylvie has died earlier that year, and Gail has cleared out their city house and gone to Ireland, and invited Jude, Adele and Wendy to do the same for the beach house, taking anything they want to keep for themselves. Sylvie’s death prompts intimations of mortality and decline in all of them.

Fissures in the three women’s friendship appear right from the start. Even though they’ve been close for decades and know each other better than their own siblings, ‘strange caverns of distance between them’ are revealed.

Jude, an elegant ex-restaurateur, is judgemental, bossy and spiky. She’s been conducting an affair with a married man for forty years, and there’s little sign he’ll ever commit to her.

Adele is an actor noted for her glamour rather than her talent, and the acting parts have dried up along with her looks. She’s become desperate to revive her career, and begins to humiliate herself as the weekend proceeds. Some of these scenes are almost painful to read.

Wendy is an intellectual, a published feminist. She’s also adrift, having lost her much-loved husband, and her direction and purpose in life. Much to the annoyance of Jude, she’s brought along her incontinent, bewildered old dog Finn, whose dementia foreshadows perhaps the fate of these women. Jude insists he stays outside the house, convinced he’ll soil the expensive white sofa she’d given to Sylvie, and is intolerant of his senility.

This hostility reflects the occasional attitude of much of wider society towards older people in the community. They’re an embarrassment, and best kept out of sight. The kindest thing, Jude believes, would be to put the old dog out of his misery. Why don’t we do this for people, is the inference she’d probably not acknowledge.

There’s not much in the way of plot, although it’s not surprising that startling secrets spill out that threaten the fragile equilibrium of this friendship. It’s unclear until the end whether life-affirming connections that hold the women together will prevail against the rifts that open up between them, or whether their weekend will end in acrimony and disaster.

I realise I may have made The Weekend sound a bit depressing – it isn’t. There’s some cracking dialogue and wit in the narrative, and the prose is unfussy and sprightly. Right at the start, when Jude is thinking about her lover’s unsuccessful attempt to elicit her sympathy for a relative of his who’s died (she feels more inclined to spit on the floor than to hug him), she admonishes herself not to be so ‘hard on people’. Then:

Jude hated other candles being lit next to the one she secretly thought of as Sylvie’s, in the cathedral she had stolen into once or twice. Sometimes she blew the other candles out.

I like the way Wood has Jude ‘steal’ into the cathedral, and vindictively blow out the other candles – she doesn’t even seem to have lit one for Sylvie herself! Her acerbity conceals an almost-lost capacity for affection.

Later, Adele reflects painfully on the way that Jude would never praise her acting performances or the plays she appeared in. Instead she ‘demolished the various elements’ of the production, because:

Jude was like a reverse Midas, walking through your life pointing at the things you cherished, one, two, three, and at her touch each one turned to shit.

It was said of Jude she ‘didn’t have friends, she had subordinates.’ But that was when she was younger, Jude has begun to realise. Now she has nothing except her part-time, absent lover.

None of this is spelt out; my extracts indicate how Wood carefully presents the minds of her characters in turn through free indirect thought, with all their evasions and elisions, as they contemplate the actions of others and their own inconsistencies.

Wood’s capacity to splice barbed revelation with humour is one of the highlights of this novel. Like the moment where Wendy looks at Sylvie’s (probably unread) copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. She recalls how they all liked talking about death when they were younger, especially Jude:

Back then Jude talked about her image of death; a white, curved place of stillness and a kind of holy silence. She made it sound like the damned Guggenheim.

Wendy goes on to think of her unsympathetic daughter’s friend, who’d set herself up as ‘an end-of-life doula’:

What’s that, Wendy had said, palliative care without the qualifications?

Hadn’t this woman heard of feminism, she wonders. She can be spiky too.  And of course she’s also pondering the way her own feminist career has run its course – she’s becoming another ‘paltry thing’. But all of these women are finding ways for their souls to ‘clap hands and sing’ – and refuse to slouch into senility.