Stone Yard Devotional
In the opening pages of Charlotte Wood’s new novel, the narrator takes a detour to the cemetery outside the town where she grew up. She is there to visit her parents’ graves for the first time in 35 years, although that process is complicated by her difficulty locating them and by the discovery somebody left “ugly plastic flowers” by their headstones. As she walks away the narrator recalls the phone call she received to tell her that her mother’s headstone was ready, “my outsides unaltered but everything within me plummeting. Like a sandbank collapsing inside me.”
These twin tides of unresolved grief and bafflement suffuse Stone Yard Devotional, a book that extends and deepens Wood’s already remarkable achievements as a novelist in powerful and often profound ways. Set on the Monaro Plain, it begins with the unnamed narrator abandoning her life and her marriage to join a small community of nuns.
The reasons for the narrator’s decision are never made explicit – she is not religious and, at least at first, she finds the nuns’ lives and rituals faintly ridiculous. Thinking about how they must appear to outsiders, she imagines one saying, “they kept bowing, sitting down, standing up, singing their weird songs about enemies and punishments”.
Gradually she begins to find solace and even beauty in the rhythms of the community. The book is partly about her growing separation from her former life, and the hurt and confusion her decision to leave without telling anybody has left in its wake: as she observes at one point, “people who choose this life are not supposed to go around causing such terrible pain to people”. But it is also about a kind of submission – if not to God, then to the life of the community – and a letting go of the self. As one of the nuns explains at one point, prayer is a form of attention to the world, a way of “interrupting your own habitual thinking” and “admitting yourself into otherness”.
This quiet is disturbed by a series of intrusions. First is a mouse plague, an infestation that soon dominates life for the narrator and the nuns. The second is news that the remains of a former member of the community who disappeared, presumed murdered, in Thailand a number of years earlier, have been found and are to be returned so she can be buried in the grounds. And the third is that the remains will be accompanied on their journey back to the community by another nun, Helen Parry, who knew the deceased woman in life.
For several nuns the arrival of Helen Parry is a source of excitement. Helen is a celebrity, a high-profile activist nun who has spent decades working on environmental and social justice campaigns in Australia and overseas. Yet for the narrator, Helen’s arrival is a source of unease. When she was at school, she was one of a group of girls who bullied, excluded and – on one occasion – physically assaulted Helen, despite knowing she lived with a disturbed and violent mother.
As its episodic and accretive structure suggests, Stone Yard Devotional is interested in exploring the question of how we are supposed to understand – and perhaps more importantly judge – these earlier versions of ourselves. When she first arrives, Helen claims not to remember the narrator and, even when she does, seems uninterested in revisiting their shared past or discussing her relationship with her mother. Other characters seem unable to even comprehend why they acted the way they did – a young man who murders his parents over what seems like nothing is left confused by his actions, even as he has to live with them for the rest of his life. Even the novel’s landscape reflects this sense of unknowability; its uneasy silences and the oddly tenuous nature of the town and the community are reminders of the elision of the original inhabitants.
The incommensurability of these versions of ourselves is also bound up in the novel’s exploration of the idea of goodness. The narrator has spent her life working in environmental organisations, a life she now feels has actually done more harm than good. Similarly, she cannot put aside her awareness of the wrongs committed against children and others by the church. But she is also aware of the ways in which the desire to do good can be misunderstood: as she remarks at one point, “it has surprised me, over the years, to discover how many people find the idea of habitual kindness to be somehow suspect: a mask or a lie”.
It is a mark of Wood’s sophistication as a writer that the novel does not attempt to resolve these contradictions. Instead it suggests that goodness is fraught and imperfect and that the bonds of love and obligation, kindness and cruelty that bind us to one another are written deep in our bodies, shaping us in ways we cannot ever fully escape or understand. As the narrator reflects, thinking of her grief for her parents, “I used to think there was a ‘before’ and ‘after’ most things that happen to a person; that a fence of time and space could separate even quite catastrophic experience from the ordinary whole of life. But now I know that with a great devastation of some kind, there is not before or after. Even when the commotion of crisis has settled, the knowledge of it is like that dam water, insisting, seeping across the past and the future.”
Allen & Unwin, 320pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 21, 2023 as "Stone Yard Devotional".
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