In 2022, Charlotte Wood had just finished the first draft of her new novel, Stone Yard Devotional, when she received the terrible news that her older sister had breast cancer.
Wood, the author of 10 books including the Stella Prize-winning The Natural Way of Things (2016), found the diagnosis “deeply shocking”.
Her first instinct was to put her life on hold to care for her sister.
She tells ABC RN’s The Book Show she thought her whole life was “going to be devoted to helping her get through this”.
But then the family was struck by another bombshell.
“Being a good big sister, she commanded the rest of us all to immediately go and get tested, at which time we discovered that I also had breast cancer, as did our younger sister,” Wood says.
“It was like being in a washing machine … of chaos and fear and understanding at a really deep level that we are mortal,” she says.
It was a life-changing moment that can be felt in the emotional heft and lucidity of Stone Yard Devotional, which has earned rave reviews among critics since it was published in October.
A ‘psychic calamity’
Fortunately, Wood didn’t require chemotherapy — but that didn’t mean she was able to rest easy.
“I felt like I’d walked away from a car accident and my sisters were still trapped in the wreckage, and I couldn’t go and live my life until they were free,” she says.
A year on, her sisters have recovered.
“We were lucky, lucky, lucky to have a very treatable kind of cancer,” Wood says.
“We’re all out the other side, but you don’t come away from that experience unchanged.”
The “psychic calamity” of Wood’s cancer experience found its way into Stone Yard Devotional.
“I was already on this path of writing a very spacious, spare kind of novel about things that I think are fundamental.
“But when I went back to [writing], it quadrupled that sensation; that feeling that I wanted nothing extraneous in this book,” she says.
“Everything felt more elemental, more rigorous and stringent, in that I didn’t want anything that didn’t absolutely matter to go into this book.”
Unsubscribe from life
Stone Yard Devotional is a novel about “grieving, love [and] forgiveness” set in a religious community on the “very bare, beautiful, spacious” Monaro plains in New South Wales, where Wood grew up.
“If you drive along some of those back roads at a certain time of day, the light on the landscape is just staggeringly beautiful,” she says.
The novel is divided into three parts. Part I is written like a diary, spanning five days.
The unnamed narrator arrives in the hometown she left a long time ago and visits her parents’ graves for the first time in 35 years, her grief still raw.
She’s lost hope in her marriage and her work as an environmental activist; crises that have sent her seeking refuge in the familiar landscape of her childhood.
She retreats to a cabin she’s rented for a few days in a religious community located out of town.
She wants to “unsubscribe from her life”, Wood says.
“Basically, she just wants to lay down and be left alone and sleep.”
“How much do you have to delude yourself that change is possible? We are in such difficult times,” she says.
“On the one hand, giving into despair is something that is evidence of your privilege — people whose communities are sinking under rising seas have to act … and I feel it’s beholden to us to stand with those people, those of us who are not yet losing our homes, literally, to climate change.
“And yet, keeping up hope in the face of sometimes overwhelming evidence that we’re not winning this fight is hard.”
How to live an ethical life
Wood’s book explores the tension between two contrasting ideas: whether it’s more ethical to live a life of contemplation or a life of action.
In Part II, the narrator has returned to the community — this time for good.
Although resolutely atheist, she is drawn to the life of introspection and hard work that she sees practised by the nuns in the religious community.
Having turned her back on her former life, she now spends her days attending church services, performing domestic chores and tending the garden.
However, the nuns’ life of peace and seclusion endures a series of disruptions: first a mouse plague, then the arrival of Helen Parry, a “celebrity nun” tasked with returning the skeletal remains of a sister who once lived in the community.
Parry, a firebrand activist nun who is unwillingly stranded in the community due to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, is critical of the nuns’ failure to engage with the outside world.
In Parry’s view, “It’s all very nice for you to sit around here praying, but there are things to be done in the world, and this is a big fat cop-out to live here and grow your vegetables, and toddle in and out of church seven times a day.”
It’s only after the mouse plague reaches its frenzied peak and the nun’s remains are finally laid to rest in Part III that Helen Parry finally leaves — much to the sisters’ relief.
The sacred act of writing
Like the narrator, Wood doesn’t believe in God, although she was raised in a Catholic household.
And though she describes the mass she attended weekly with her parents as “stupefyingly boring”, she says the services helped shape her as a writer.
“Catholicism has all this elaborate richness of symbolism,” she says.
“Being washed in this kind of language, this rhythmic language of the Old Testament … it gets into your bones. You can’t escape it.”
For Wood, the act of writing is akin to religious worship.
Writing is a vocation, she says. “There is something sacred … or holy about it. When you’re fully engaged in it, when you’re fully absorbed in the practice of it, there is an almost prayer-like aspect.”
Wood says her brush with mortality emboldened her to take more risks in Stone Yard Devotional than she had in her previous work.