I’d already drafted my monthly ‘favourite new releases’ post for Styling You when The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood arrived. It was a book I’d been hearing a bit about, so naturally I felt obliged to binge-read it that night in case I needed to rearrange my ‘five faves’ post.
And… Oh. My. God. What a mindf*ck. Though in a good way.
Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in a broken-down property in the middle of nowhere. Strangers to each other, they have no idea where they are or how they came to be there with eight other girls, forced to wear strange uniforms, their heads shaved, guarded by two inept yet vicious armed jailers and a ‘nurse’.
The girls all have something in common, but what is it? What crime has brought them here from the city? Who is the mysterious security company responsible for this desolate place with its brutal rules, its total isolation from the contemporary world?
Doing hard labour under a sweltering sun, the prisoners soon learn what links them: in each girl’s past is a sexual scandal with a powerful man. They pray for rescue — but when the food starts running out it becomes clear that the jailers have also become the jailed.
The girls can only rescue themselves.
I really had no idea what to expect from this book and guess my order-loving mind kept searching for something logical in what was happening to the ten women. At one point I wondered if young Hetty was right and they were on some over-the-top reality TV show or something. Survivor meets Behind Bars or similar.
But ultimately like the girls I remained in the dark. It’s obvious the one thing the girls have in common is that they’re ‘outspoken’ victims of sexual assaults or have been involved in a sex scandal. The girls are all young (mid 20s and younger) and their revelations all involved high profile men, garnering significant media attention. We’re in the heads of Yolande and Verla and while we get to hear some of the girls’ stories I would have liked to have know all of the girls better. All were blamed in some way for what happened to them.
In addition to an electric fence the girls are under the watchful eye of the sadistic Boncer, stoner Teddy and erstwhile nurse Nancy. Although the girls are in chains, their ability to overpower their captors goes untested… which I found interesting. And frustrating.
In all honesty my biggest fear was that the book was some huge metaphor and my very literal mind missed the symbolism and meaning behind Wood’s work.
It’s obvious Wood’s commenting on the way women are treated after disclosing sexual misconduct (abuse, rape and so forth). I’ve read a few articles and reviews in which she’s described as ‘angry’. I didn’t perceive any anger, but felt her frustration. In fact there’s a slightly out-of-place blast midway through the novel.
Would it be said they were abandoned or take, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if it womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves. p176
I get Wood’s point but struggled with this example because I believe the media would in fact use ‘boy’ and ‘man’ in similar examples. (A 5yr old boy was attacked; A 40yr old man was beaten….)
More interesting is her point that, it’s not only men who have a tendency to blame the victim. While Verla’s certainly very righteous, she (and the other girls to a lesser extent) have also made judgements about their fellow prisoners based on media reports. And sadly I suspect it is the case that society as a whole tends to want to preserve the image of high profile types. It’s far more palatable to believe their victims brought their fate on themselves. Far better than the option that we’ve been deceived by those we revere.
It’s also interesting to see how the women all cope with their extended incarceration. For all (including their jailers) there seems to be a slow descent into insanity as reality and their old lives become a distant memory.
I remained confounded that the girls didn’t fight back. Whether they were so disempowered as a result of their own public lashings; or eventually found comfort in obedience I don’t know. But (in retrospect) one cannot help but wonder what would have happened if they’d fought back soon after their arrival.
This book is beautifully written and ridiculously clever. Readers cannot help but be swept along—entranced by Wood’s stunning prose—even when the subject matter may be confronting.
I loved that Wood took no prisoners when it came to the practicalities. Some might cringe at learning how the girls coped with menstruation or the itchiness of body hair regrowth. The sunburn, blisters, greying teeth and chaffing helped make the girls’ stories very very real.
As I’ve almost written a novel myself you have probably gathered there is A LOT to think about in this book. As for the end… remember the mindf*ck I mentioned in the beginning?
Since finishing this book I’ve had Twitter and Facebook conversations with others who’ve also NEEDED to talk about it. It would be the perfect book club read, though might cause a few (ahem) heated discussions.
The lovely Elizabeth Lhuede has already reviewed it, for example and talks very eloquently about misogyny and learned helplessness. She also describes it as a near-future dystopia, which is something I most certainly didn’t realise.
Whatever your take on this book, it will—without a doubt—have some impact and if you’re like me, you’ll be pondering on it days and days (perhaps weeks and months) after you’ve turned the last page.
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood was released by Allen & Unwin on September 2015.
As an aside, it should mention that the version I read has an incredibly beautifully illustrated and embossed cover!
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.
This interview with Wood in the Sydney Morning Herald sheds some light on her inspiration for the book. (And I’m kinda horrified that a place like Hay House existed!)