Review: Stone by Stone: A Novel by Stevie Woods

Can two men build a relationship when one must tear down each stone that the other has worked so hard to build?

In the year 1535, after a misspent youth, Brother Mark is a hardworking Benedictine monk toiling as a stonemason at Tavistock Abbey. There he finds himself irrevocably drawn to one of the men sent out by King Henry to audit the monasteries prior to closure. Andrew Cheyne is fascinated by the handsome young man and breaks down the monk’s boundaries with an ease that neither expected.

When Andrew returns four years later to finally close the abbey, each man must also come to terms with their past to attempt to plan a future they can share. But fate plays a cruel trick on them. Or, as

Mark wonders, is it God teaching him a lesson? Attempting to forget Mark, Andrew commences a brand new life, but fate has more lessons in store for him yet.

Review by Elliott Mackle

The most riveting historical fiction is set against what the Chinese curse as “interesting times” —wars, revolutions, disputes between rival princes, invasions by barbaric hoards and widespread piracy upon the high seas. For every pastoral-domestic Pride and Prejudice, I’ll give you five Gone with the Winds and six Tales of Two Cities.

Stone by Stone is set in the turbulent period immediately following King Henry VIII’s break with Rome and proclamation of himself as head of the Church of England. Henry, a profligate spender always in need of cash, saw the realm’s rich monasteries and nunneries as easy pickings. A program was devised whereby royal commissioners inspected these establishments, drew up lists of accounts and possessions, and gave abbots the choice of either turning over land, buildings, livestock, furnishings, art and manuscripts to the head of the new church – or facing trial and perhaps execution for heresy and failure to obey a royal command. Monks and nuns were simply turned out into the road, sometimes with a pension, sometimes with a trade to support themselves in the outside world, and sometimes not.

The king was then free to pay his debts with gold plate, priceless illuminated bibles, works of art, grain and cattle, and to sell or give the former cloisters and abbeys to those nobles and officials who had supported him in his long effort to rid himself of Queen Catherine, marry Anne Boleyn and produce a male heir.

Stone by Stone is based upon historical fact: the dissolution of Tavistock Abbey in Devon. Fictional and historical figures are nicely mixed. The last abbot, John Peryn, who surrendered the abbey in return for a pension of one hundred pounds, is sympathetically treated, and was a real person. The king’s henchmen, royal commissioner Sir Richard Louden and his assistant, Master Andrew Cheyne, are presumably fictional. They serve, however, at the pleasure of the quite real Thomas Cromwell, among the King’s closest advisors, who is also at the center of the international bestseller and Man Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. More on that below.

Stone by Stone opens with a short preface, contrasting snapshots of the protagonists: Andrew Cheyne, a confirmed bachelor, topping an anonymous male stranger in the flea-ridden back room of a tavern in Southwark, London; Brother Mark of Lydford, an apprentice stonecutter at Tavistock, awakening from a wet dream, guiltily savoring the pleasure of being fondled by another man. “He needed someone to love him—a man to love him. A man he could love. God forgive him…”

Brother Mark will soon get his wish.

The novel itself is divided into three parts spanning seven years. Sir Richard and Master Cheyne arrive at Tavistock during the summer of 1535. Cheyne, in order to better observe the easy lives of the friars, elects to sleep in a cell rather than the priory. He has hardly done more than drop off his saddlebags when he encounters Brother Mark. Their affair follows a familiar track: The Look. Instantaneous Mutual Recognition. The First Kiss. Solitary Masturbation (fantasizing the other, albeit including the very modern term “pre-come”). The Body-to-Body Kiss. The Initial Refusal (by Brother Mark) to Go Further. And so on to The First Encounter (very explicit undressing, sucking and fucking in the deserted library by candlelight).

After a few days, the inspection party must leave and the lovers must part. Brother Mark reflects thusly:

“He lifted his eyes heavenward and wondered, for maybe the hundredth time, why life was so complicated. Why couldn’t others see what now seemed straightforward to him. For some men, it was more natural to love a man. He had tried to blame the devil for his inclination, but everything was created by God, even the fallen angel. If one believed in the power of God, how could it be otherwise? God made nature, God made man, including those men who loved other men. Mark had come to understand the definition of what is ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ was made by man. Mark had found a measure of peace in accepting his own understanding of God—what He is, what He does and how He works.”

It hardly needs pointing out that this line of reasoning is modern, not renaissance, nor that the concept of homosexuality as a state of being did not exist until the nineteenth century. Randy monks, however, are stock figures in the comedy, fiction and art of many cultures, and Brother Mark is a particularly attractive example of the type.

Four years later, during the winter of 1539, Andrew Cheyne, now himself a king’s commissioner, returns to Tavistock to accept title to the abbey on behalf of the king, and to carry off the most valuable treasures. There is a good deal of discussion concerning administrative matters, valuations and pensions. While I understand that historical novels set in the distant past cannot succeed if cast in the exact language of the era, authors should make some attempt to suggest the flavor and accents of the characters within the narrative. Author Woods’s dialog is cast almost entirely in conversational modern English, some of it quite wooden.

The most egregious such lapse, among many, occurs during the initial exchange between the new commissioner and the abbot.

“‘Abbot Peryn,’ Andrew said, keeping his eyes on the abbot, ‘I am Andrew Cheyne, King Henry’s Commissioner. I am here to facilitate the procedure.’”

Beyond the inelegant repetition, the line is laughable. Phrases such as “facilitate the procedure” date to the late twentieth century and today are taken seriously only by tin-eared bureaucrats and non-commissioned officers.

After a good deal of “Does he?” “Should I?” “Will he?” dithering, Andrew and Mark do get it on again, declaring their love and expressing it in as hard-core an erotic encounter as anything available in today’s one-handed-fiction magazines and websites. Stand warned.

Mark’s apprenticeship has been transferred to a civilian master mason. Forced to make a hurried departure on the morning of the abbey’s dissolution, he leaves a note in Andrew’s saddlebag explaining where and with whom he is bound. Naturally, there is confusion and the note is lost.

Andrew, having made enough in commissions over a decade or so’s service to the crown, begs to retire and is rewarded with the opportunity to purchase a confiscated country house and surrounding acreage at a bargain price. Lacking only one thing to complete his happiness, Mark, he spends a year searching unsuccessfully for the younger man and, at the end of part two, gives up in defeat.

The HEA conclusion is clear from the opening pages of part three. It is the summer of 1542. Thomas Cromwell is two years dead, beheaded after losing King Henry’s favor. Andrew, lonely but engaged in his new role as country squire, takes a wife, Emily, the daughter of a wealthy neighbor. Andrew is able to make love to her only by imagining he is topping Mark. When Emily becomes pregnant, Andrew realizes he must make improvements to his crumbling, drafty old house. Applying to the Guild of Stonemasons in nearby Plymouth, he is swiftly reunited with Mark, now himself a master mason, who agrees to oversee the necessary repairs.

Andrew and Mark are likeable characters, well worth knowing. The novel’s historical frame and narrative are skillfully constructed. The Tudor period is of continuing interest to English and American readers. Typos and misspellings are relatively few and minor—monks for monk’s, “pouring over” a set of drawings, for instance. Unfamiliar words—dorter, obedentiaries, carrack—can be puzzled out, though I’d prefer they’d been explained.

Simply put, however, author Woods has failed to imagine herself inside the abbey, observing and eavesdropping on men as they argue, pray to God, spy on each other and make love. So many details—stonecutting, modes of travel, a monastery’s daily schedule—are well observed. It’s thus too bad that much of the scene setting fails to rise much above the level of tourist guidebook. Too bad, also, that the lovers experience so little fear and danger, that there’s so little tension in the novel. Although Henry’s reign was marked by violence, disorder and officially sanctioned, often whimsical murder, little or no blood is spilled here.

Finally, a note on Wolf Hall. That novel follows Cromwell’s meteoric rise from battered village youth to King Henry’s chief minister and Anne Boleyn’s confidante. The success of the novel has prompted author Mantel to compose a sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies,” to be published later this year in both the U.S. and U.K. I have no idea whether the popularity of Mantel’s epic had anything to do with the conception of Stone by Stone, a sort of sidebar to Cromwell’s story. In any case, it is a compelling tale but one not perfectly told.

Author’s website

Buy at Amber Allure (ebook and paperback)

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