Friday 8 March 2024

Stone Yard Devotional by Charlotte Wood #StoneYardDevotional #CharlotteWood @SceptreBooks @MrFeditor #BookReview


Burnt out and in need of retreat, a middle-aged woman leaves Sydney to return to the place she grew up, taking refuge in a small religious community hidden away on the stark plains of the Australian outback. She doesn't believe in God, or know what prayer is, and finds herself living this strange, reclusive existence almost by accident.

But disquiet interrupts this secluded life with three visitations. First comes a terrible mouse plague, each day signalling a new battle against the rising infestation. Second is the return of the skeletal remains of a sister who disappeared decades before, presumed murdered. And finally, a troubling visitor plunges the narrator further back into her past.

Stone Yard Devotional by Charlotte Wood was published on 7 March 2024 by Sceptre. My thanks to the publisher who sent my copy for review. 

I was totally entranced by this novel. At around three hundred pages, it's not a long read, but it's one that lingered in my head, even after I'd put it down. 

Made up of diary-like thoughts of an unnamed woman, this is a quiet book that slowly introduces the reader to the narrator's innermost thoughts. It could be difficult to related to a character when you don't even know her name, but not here, her name is not needed, for we totally understand her and her actions throughout. 

The woman needs to get away from life. The pain of a broken relationship, the anguish of a close friend's terminal illness and the remnants of grief about her dead parents all combine to make her want to escape. She finds sanctuary at a religious retreat in the Australian outback, far away from her home in Sydney and close to where she spent her childhood years. Whilst she is not religious herself, she respects the nuns, attending their services and working alongside them in the kitchen and the garden. 

There are sisters who the woman favours, some who annoy her, yet she is welcomed and soon, this place becomes home. Her stark cabin, the chickens in the yard, and the few other visitors become her way of life. 

Whilst not religious, the woman's narrative becomes something of a confession, she is able to explore her feelings openly, she accepts her flaws and that her friends and her work colleagues feel let down that she has left them. Her memories of her mother are poignant and telling, very different to how she feels about her late father. We do not know why her marriage broke down, we know that Alex, her husband, left, maybe her leaving her ordinary life is her response?

There are certain things that happen to to woman on retreat, that really shape her story.  There is a terrible infestation of mice; a plague almost. The women and the others at the retreat spend hours fighting against the damage done by these small creatures, there are some horrific things witnessed, and the impact of thousands of these small creatures is shocking. 

When the nuns receive news that the skeleton of one of their sisters, murdered overseas, has been found, it is a huge task to bring her remains home. The world has been grounded by the pandemic, just getting officials to answer legal questions is almost impossible, and the actual act of getting the remains from one side of the world to another is very trying. The remains do return, and with them is a woman who is familiar to the woman. Now a member of the order, the woman remembers this woman as a girl who was constantly bullied in school, who never fought back, who was the victim of her own mother's failings. At first, the woman is wary, but as time moves on, she and this visitor begin to engage, resulting in a different feeling about the past. 

Wood's writing is sparse and abrupt at times, yet it is so powerful and moving. There is something so forceful about this novel, from the desolation of the landscape, to the destruction created by the mice and the woman's slow realisation of herself. It is a novel about grief and escape, about finding one's place in the world and dealing with the things that stop life from moving on freely. 

Beautiful, quiet and contemplative. Highly recommended. 

Charlotte Wood is the author of seven novels and three books of non-fiction. 

Her novel The Natural Way of Things won the 2016 Stella Prize, the Indie Book of the Year and Novel of the Year Awards, and was joint winner of the Prime Minister's Literary Award for Fiction. 

Her next novel, The Weekend, was an international bestseller and was shortlisted for the 2020 Stella Prize, the Prime Minister's Literary Award and the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. 

In 2019 she was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) and named one of the Australian Financial Review's 100 Women of Influence. 

Her features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Guardian, Literary Hub and Sydney Morning Herald, among others. 

Charlotte lives in Sydney with her husband.

IG @charlottewoodwriter

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