Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

Review of "Stone Yard Devotional" by Charlotte Wood - a powerful, serene novel.

Review of “Stone Yard Devotional” by Charlotte Wood – a powerful, serene novel.


What can we do about global warming, mass extinction, and our waterways? Is there any way to make a difference when the majority of power is held by unaccountable corporations and shameless demagogues? Should we even bother trying? The main character in the book Stone Yard Devotional, who has been working in conservation, ultimately succumbs to despair and leaves her life and marriage in Sydney. She seeks solace in an enclosed convent on the Monaro Plains in New South Wales. During her stay, she immerses herself in convent life, helping with daily tasks and attending mass and prayer services. There is no grand turning point or sense of salvation, just a group of women carrying on with their routines. This may not sound like an exciting plot for a book, but I was captivated and convinced by this novel. And let’s not forget about the mice.

It is common for authors to utilize the intense environment of a convent as a means of exploring ideas or mocking society. In Black Narcissus, Rumer Godden examines the complexities of colonialism, while Muriel Spark uses the setting of a Watergate scandal for her novel The Abbess of Crewe. However, the nuns in Stone Yard are too preoccupied with maintaining order to engage in wiretapping or scandalous behavior. Their pressure comes from external sources, specifically in the form of three new arrivals. The first is the remains of Sister Jenny, a member of the order who was murdered in Thailand many years ago. A sudden flood has unearthed her bones, and the nuns must now bury her at the mother house. As they keep vigil, they also struggle with feelings of grief and resentment.

Helen Parry, a well-known environmentalist, joins the bones as their sister and brings with her all the chaos of the outside world that the narrator had hoped to escape. They were classmates during their childhood, and the narrator witnessed Parry being bullied. This memory has always weighed on the narrator’s conscience. However, as an adult, Parry is strong, confident, and capable. The once heartbroken child has transformed into a passionate activist. She no longer needs validation from others, having been friendless in her youth. The depiction of Parry alone makes the book worth reading.

The nuns are affected by the changing climate, not only through Parry’s radio updates, but also by an influx of mice due to a drought up north. These pests have infested the convent in disturbing numbers, with some even hidden within a swaying window blind. Their constant noise is unavoidable, forcing the nuns to use a mechanical digger to dispose of their bodies. This section contains unsettling scenes that would make even Stephen King uneasy. However, instead of a social breakdown or act of bravery as seen in horror stories, the nuns simply continue to do their best in cleaning up and managing the situation.

The unexpected situation of the narrator seeking refuge in a convent is ironic because despair is considered a grave sin in Catholicism. In conversations, Wood has described the three events – the discovery of bones, the appearance of mice, and the return of Parry – as “visitations”, implying that they were trials, similar to the ones faced by the protagonist during their time in the desert. These trials present various opportunities for reflection, such as ways in which we can come to terms with the harm we have caused, finding comfort and purpose in serving others and adhering to religious practices, and recognizing that even in our brokenness, we can still be of value.

Simone Weil stated that attention is the most uncommon and uncorrupted type of generosity. Wood is an author who possesses a deep level of attention. Every detail in this book – the movements of mice, a shared look between two women, a protagonist’s ability to love the world while being abrupt and thoughtless towards those close to them – feels genuine. The story centers on a small group living in a small town, yet its impact is universal. Overall, this is a compelling and magnanimous novel.

Source: theguardian.com