Award winning Australian author Charlotte Wood takes her main character to a retreat in her latest book Stone Yard Devotional. Set in a small, humble monastery in the Monaro high country near Australia’s Snowy Mountains mainly during the Covid years, the book follows one woman’s search for meaning and a deeper understanding of the world.
The book opens with the unnamed narrator attending a retreat on the grounds of a small monastery close to the small country town where she grew up. While not religious she attends the services and watches the brown robed nuns at their work. Five years later and the woman has cut herself off from her former life and joined the monastery. While still not a woman of faith, she believes that immersing herself in the life of the nuns will help her come to some sort of peace with her life and her past. But some of that past comes crashing back in the form of another nun, who is someone from her childhood.
Stone Yard Devotional manages to be both contemplative and full of reminiscence and nostalgia on one hand and quite visceral on the other. The grist of the novel is the narrator coming to terms with her past, and in particular her relationship with her mother, which is delivered in quick, evocative flashbacks. But all of this happens in and around the life of the monastery which is trying to organise to bury the bones of one of their own who died overseas while challenged by a mouse plague, covid and local bureaucracy. The mouse plague and how the nuns have to deal with it is rendered in almost horrifying detail – traps, poisons, mass graves – and gives an intense feel of just one of the challenges of rural life.
Stone Yard Devotional is quite a quiet, intimate, constrained novel. Wood manages to cover a lot of ground and bring plenty of depth to her protagonist while giving a great sense of the country that she grew up in and its challenges.