Retreating from the World with Charlotte Wood

Article | Issue: Oct 2023

CHARLOTTE WOOD is the author of 10 books including the international bestseller, The Weekend and The Natural Way of Things for which she won the Stella Prize and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. Her latest novel Stone Yard Devotional is a moving novel about grief, forgiveness and what it means to be good. AKINA HANSEN reports.

 

In 2020 the world as we knew it changed when a global pandemic was declared. To prevent the spread of the virus, many governments across the globe enforced lockdowns. And, in turn, the way we lived, worked, and communicated shifted overnight.

This was a frightening and confronting experience for many, including award-winning and bestselling author Charlotte Wood, whose novels include The Weekend and The Natural Way of Things.

‘I found it really stressful, and it really freaked me out, the fact that we had to just stop, be still, stay home and do nothing.’

Faced with an unfamiliar stillness, Charlotte felt inspired to examine this.

‘I was kind of interested in how, when the lockdowns began, we all just had to stop this kind of constant flurry of activity that we generally live in. And how hard that was for many of us; it was hard for me even though I live in a fairly quiet way, anyway’, she shares.

The result is her latest novel, Stone Yard Devotional, which she began writing in 2020. The story is set against the backdrop of the pandemic and follows a woman as she abandons her city life to live in a reclusive religious community.

While Charlotte has an interesting connection to religion – she grew up Catholic and her father was a Cistercian monk for one year before he married her mother – it wasn’t her interest in religion that compelled her to explore monastic life and, specifically, nuns.

‘It was about the retreat from society … and that idea of monastic life, which is a highly ritualised, ordered life of silence, retreat and prayer. Even though my narrator doesn’t really ever understand what prayer is, or how you’re supposed to do it, or what the point of it is, she is uncomfortably at home in this place. So I suppose I was interested in engaging with the world and retreating from the world as a way to live, and as a way to be good in the world.’

The novel follows an unnamed narrator as she returns to the place where she grew up, Monaro, a remote region of NSW located near the Snowy River National Park characterised by its rolling plains and valleys and its sheep and cattle industry. Charlotte herself grew up in Cooma, which is one of the main country towns in the region.

‘The landscape and the kind of small-town aspect of the narrator’s memories, some of them are memories that I think I have.’

When Charlotte began writing this novel, she knew she wanted to set her story there.

‘Something to do with that landscape really compelled me, the kind of austerity, and kind of harshness of the landscape.’

It’s against this setting that we see the narrator grapple with her own internal struggles. After visiting the area and staying at the convent on numerous occasions, she eventually makes the decision to live there.

While this is a work of fiction. There are several parallels between Charlotte’s own life and the story.

Interestingly, the narrator hasn’t sought out this lifestyle for religious reasons – in fact, she’s an atheist – but she longs to retreat from the world and finds solace and peace in the rituals of the convent.

‘I can see the great appeal of that sort of life. As I say, not the religious side of it, but the quiet, and the stillness, and how the decisions about how you live your life are taken away from you, you just follow orders. And that is, I imagined, both quite comforting and also extremely frustrating for people living that kind of life.’

While this is a work of fiction. There are several parallels between Charlotte’s own life and the story.

‘I’m an atheist, and I think the Catholic Church is responsible for some of the most horrific abuses that we’ve seen in any institution, if not the most. I have no interest in defending the Catholic Church. And yet, as I wrote in that piece for The Guardian years ago, there are things that I can’t escape about my Catholic upbringing that were really beautiful and that had moral integrity. I know some religious people who most definitely do good in the world, who are selfless contributors to society.’

As the novel weaves between past and present, we learn that the narrator is still grieving the death of her mother who died years earlier. Charlotte’s own parents died when she was young and so she shares those aspects of the novel which deal with the narrator’s grief, are very much drawn from her own experiences.

‘I drew a lot on my mother. The mother that the narrator remembers is a kind of portrait of my mother, but a very narrow version of my mother. I mean, the mother in the book is sort of recognisable to me. But she may not be recognisable to other people who knew her or even my siblings,’ she says.

As the story progresses, the narrator settles into her new life, and continues to be burdened by feelings of grief and shame. Memories of her mother and a girl whom she bullied in high school plague her. In turn, she grapples with the concept of forgiveness. Specifically, what it means to forgive and why we seek it out.

While Charlotte says that she’s never had anything terrible done to her to have to wrestle with the idea of forgiveness, she was nonetheless drawn to the idea and intrigued by how it works.

‘I thought it was really fascinating to look at how hard forgiveness is – forgiving someone for something terrible – I’m not talking about if someone cancelled dinner. But, if you’ve been very badly hurt by someone, how difficult it is to forgive them. And what it even means … I think our sort of cultural expectation is that if I apologise, you have to accept my apology, and then it’s all over … but the fact that I apologise to you has no bearing on whether you should forgive me. And I think true forgiveness is very, very difficult.’

As the narrator wrestles with these internal thoughts, the quiet and peace of the convent is disrupted by various events, mirroring the narrator’s own unsettled feelings. First, a mouse plague wreaks havoc on their land and the sisters battle an infestation. Then, the skeletal remains of a nun who was murdered years earlier are returned, and finally, Sister Helen, an activist nun, arrives. Helen’s presence deeply unsettles the women and reminds them of everything they have left behind.

‘It’ll be interesting to see how readers respond to this book because it is sort of austere and quiet, and I think you need to be in a certain frame of mind to read it properly, which is to allow yourself to go quite still and quiet,’ says Charlotte.

Indeed, Stone Yard Devotional is a contemplative and meditative novel. There is a slow and thoughtful quality to the writing that mirrors the monastic life of the sisters. It isn’t a novel that is driven by drama but it’s a stimulating read that left me with a lot of internal questions and thoughts.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Charlotte Wood authorCharlotte Wood is the author of nine books including The Luminous Solution, an exploration of creativity and the inner life. andnovel the international bestseller, The Weekend.  It was shortlisted for several awards including the Stella Prize and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, both of which she won, among others, for her previous novel, The Natural Way of Things, in 2016. That title was featured in the 2021 ABC Television series, ‘The Books That Made Us’.

Belvoir Theatre Company in Sydney staged an adaptation of The Weekend in August 2023.

In 2019 Charlotte 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, The Guardian, Literary Hub, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Saturday Paper among other publications.

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