Stone Yard Devotional – a fascinating novel

image stone yard devotional

Stone Yard Devotional by Charlotte Wood kept me fascinated from beginning to end. Novels by this quintessential Australian author have won the Stella Prize, among others. Her new book, published last year, deserves similar recognition.

This is a very Australian story, encompassing both the bleak countryside and quirky Australian characters.

Author of Stone Yard Devotional, Charlotte Wood

What’s Stone Yard Devotional about?

An unnamed, middle-age woman visits the graves of her parents before she arrives at a monastery in country Victoria near where she grew up. She is retreating for a few days from her life and her husband. She joins the nuns at prayer and muses on the strangeness of the liturgy and ritual, which she enjoys anyway. After a few days she leaves the place.

Some months later, she returns, this time seemingly more permanently. It’s an odd transition, because she professes no faith or belief in God. She joins the nuns in their work and in their prayer life. However, her attraction to the monastic life is not explained.

Three events

The novel encompasses three major events events after the woman arrives. Although it might sound like a horror story, it is more than that because of the exquisite writing.

  • The first event, an horrendous plague of mice which disrupts the normal life of the convent. The few at the beginning are buried, one at a time. But soon the nuns are digging mass graves and eventually ask a neigbour to use heavy machinery to dig deep trenches.
  • The mice eat ‘the coiled plastic dishwasher pipes and the oven insulation, the electrical cord for the washing machine. All those tasks are now done by hand; there’s no point replacing the parts until the plague is over.’

  • The second, the return of the ‘skeletal remains’ and eventual burial of a nun, presumed murdered, overseas. The nuns take turns to sit in the parlour with the bones of their much-loved colleague. They wait for permission from a government agency to bury what is left of her body. Permission does not come.
  • Third, the visitation of a nun Helen Parry, from outside, who accompanies the bones to the monastery. Helen Parry had been a classmate of the protagonist. At school she was a strange child from a strange family. Now she is a strong activist.

The nebulous, character-driven story seems almost without plot. As well as describing the present horrors, it explores the woman’s past through memories and in a series of backstories. Her childhood and relationships with her parents (especially her mother), school friends and husband add layers to the story.

Themes in Stone Yard Devotional

Stone Yard Devoltional explores themes of loss and grief which resurfaces and never really goes away. Deep questions of morality are raised, including those about forgiveness and the loss of hope. The narrator says,

I read somewhere that Catholics think despair is the unforgivable sin. I think they are right, it’s malign, it bleeds and spreads. Once gone, I don’t know that real hope or faith – are they the same? – can ever return.

Why I liked this book so much

I’ve just read over what I’ve written, and found how bleak I’ve made the novel sound. But the bleakness is redeemed by the writing, which I found deeply moving. I frequently found myself close to tears.

Descriptive passages tumble over each other. Here are two examples.

The narrator’s parents rarely spoke about the past, but she describes their arrival in Australia.

…they stepped onto the hard Australian ground stripped of everything but the new, the present moment, the suitcase handle in his grip, the wind whipping her hair across her face, the dank fishy smell of the quay, the now.

Talking about the unnaturalness of the way the women in the convent lived, she explains how she misses babies. She has never wanted to be a mother.

Mostly I miss cathing a baby’s eye on a bus, the way its gaze stays with you, serious and steady and curious, observing you from the little throne of its stroller. I did love that. I miss that. A lot.


This is a good read for anyone interested in Australian literature. Its differences from other books by Charlotte Wood are marked and at the same time it is unmistakably hers.

Brave teachers prepared to put in the work might use it as a class text for upper school classes.

An ideal bookclub choice, it would stimulate much discussion.


I’ve written many reviews in the past, on another form of my blog, now lost. However, there’s a review of a completely different book, Songlines, the Power and the Promise, here.

If you’ve read this book, and would like to add to the conversation, you’d like more information about it, or want to add something to the discussion, please comment below. I love comments!

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  1. Sounds fascinating, Maureen. Such topics aren’t easy ones, so to write about them effectively would be challenging.
    Thank you for your review.

  2. Agree with Susan Dunn – perhaps can add to the pile of books on my bedside table!!

    But yes, would love to read it. And again, thank you Maureen.

    1. Elizabeth B, I think you’d really like some parts of the novel. You might find the prospect of a woman who claims not to believe in God, and not to understand what part prayer can have in the modern world, particularly interesting. I found it easy to read in a couple of sittings.

    1. No, Sue W. It isn’t a horror story, it’s much too subtle for that. It’s actually a very touching novel, beautifully written. Sadly, though, plagues of mice do occur from time to time in rural Australia, especially, of course, in wheatbelt areas where crops feed the creatures. I don’t know how people bear to live in those areas.

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