Stone Yard Devotional

reviewed by Wendy Tucker
by Charlotte Wood
This is the seventh novel by the Australian writer, Charlotte Wood. The first novel of Wood’s I read was the multi-award winning The Natural Way of Things, a very disturbing, harsh and political novel. But brilliant. I eagerly awaited the next – a lighter, funnier novel but with a tough ironic bite, called The Weekend with five elderly woman as main characters. I was disappointed but most readers were not – I didn’t believe the characters. But I wasn’t disappointed in this latest novel. It is again very different and difficult and a return to brilliance.
A middle-aged woman, our un-named protagonist, leaves her inner-city life, her high-energy job in Saving Endangered Wildlife, her husband and her friends to live in a small rural Catholic convent. This is the country of her childhood, the Monaro plains of NSW – ‘… it opened into these endless, shallow, angular plains, bare as rubbed suede’ – where she had not returned since her mother’s death 35 years ago.
Schooled in the Catholic school system, she is now an atheist, but is accepted into the monastic life by this community of eleven nuns. She embraces the simple repetitive life that gives her what she needs to ward off her despair about the catastrophes of our world. It gives her time and space to think, to remember, to grieve and to contemplate.
This secluded life is interrupted by three upheavals. The first is a huge, unending, unstoppable mice plague. Everything is chewed, all appliances are broken. The nuns wage a war of blood, guts and nausea with these invaders. The second is the return of the bones of a beloved nun, murdered in Thailand. And, finally, the arrival of the Celebrity Nun. This nun is famed throughout the world for her advocacy for the environment and human rights and now she is stuck in this insignificant place because of COVID.
Each of these disturbing intrusions leads our narrator to deeper contemplation. This really is a novel of questions. What is forgiveness? What is religion? How does the past inform the present? Does grief ever end? Is loss of hope a moral failure? And, as the nuns believe, is despair the greatest sin?
A wonderful, thoughtful, meditative novel by a superb writer at the top of her craft.