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The burden of hope in Charlotte Wood's Stone Yard Devotional

  • 17 November 2023
  Stone Yard Devotional, Charlotte Wood, Allen & Unwin 2023

  Fellow-feeling is the way that you can overcome a prejudice: Charlotte Wood’s profound relatability is the way she has overcome my initial resistance to the fact that the first part of this book begins in slow, claustrophobic present tense. It’s a gauntlet then, thrown down to me and my grumpy rejection of the current fad for new novels being stuck in a wandering, waffly webcam selfie. However, after that slow beginning, Stone Yard Devotional settles down into a mixture of styles, mostly like diary entries and reflections that are all the clearer for being couched often in past tense.

Wood’s book is an important chronicle of a huge problem in our time, a profound imaging of the anomie that stalks us all; the sense of futility in all our efforts to amend; the dearth of comfort when all one can see is the comforts of Job’s advisers, when the most tempting reaction is to ‘curse God and die’. For many, the answer is to laugh; but fair warning – there are no laughs here. But Wood may make us think, because despair is a constant stalker of the bravest of warriors against the destruction of the planet and the chronic toll of human evil. When compassion becomes a disabling burden, who or what can help?

Wood’s protagonist is a woman in her early sixties, living through this existential crisis in a way that colours the entire world that we see through her eyes. Born of British Catholic migrant parents, in a Victorian country town, she is a chronic bystander from childhood onward; but is also the kind who cannot help but empathise minutely with those she sees victimised. This empathy extends, greatly to her psychological disadvantage as she witnesses helplessly the imminent collapse of the environment and the emptiness of culture. She suffers the loss of hope and intimacy in relationships, manifested in her inability to recover from the death of loved parents. All these lead her to go on retreat figuratively and literally.

As the book begins, the narrator is taking a break from her ordinary life, travelling to a country monastery for a retreat. A break in the narrative takes us to four years later when she has moved permanently to the abbey as an inmate, but not as a nun – presumably as a paying guest. She has no belief in God herself