The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
Allen & Unwin 2015
Trade Paperback with Flaps
Charlotte Wood’s fifth novel is a disturbing yet beautiful and thought-provoking exploration into the misogyny lurking beneath Australia’s good-natured, laid-back, egalitarian image. It is inspired, in part, by the Hay Institution for Girls, “an offshoot of Parramatta Girls Home that was reserved for the 10 worst offenders in the state in the 1960s and ’70s. They were drugged and put on a train to the decommissioned men’s prison in south-western NSW, where they were forced to march, look at the floor, never talk to each other, and endure rape and other violence.” (Susan Wyndham, SMH) It is also inspired, or influenced, by the reaction to sex scandals over the years – far from being seen as victims, or equally responsible, the women in these scandals are vilified and denigrated – and hated.
In such ways do incredible true stories and a confronting dystopian fiction come together. In Wood’s alternate present day setting, ten girls are drugged and taken to a remote sheep station, long abandoned and falling into ruin, in outback Australia (the state isn’t clear but it would be either Victoria or NSW, most likely). They wake groggy and fearful, without their clothes or possessions, wearing old-fashioned clothes to which a leash can be attached and locked. Their heads are shaved, they’re served small portions of the least nutritious food you can think of – Kraft-style Mac and Cheese, two-minute noodles, no fruit or veg – and bullied and beaten by the two men hired to guard them. Boncer and Teddy – and a young woman of dubious background herself, Nancy, who dresses up as a nurse with paper costume pieces and plastic toy stethoscope – are their guards. Surrounded by a high electrified fence, they are all locked in, trapped, but for the ten young women their lesson is to learn what they are, not who; and for the men, it is to teach them this.
This nightmare situation (as a female reader, I couldn’t help but feel vulnerable, even threatened) is vividly rendered in Wood’s delicate, descriptive prose and made all the more frightening by the idea, lurking beneath the surreal every-day existence depicted, that this plan wasn’t even thought through all that well; or that, if it was carefully planned, it was planned by a truly cruel, evil fuck who has no regard for human life, health or sanity. It is the not-knowing, the ambiguity, the lack of information and facts that add to the tension and terror for the reader. Trying to imagine adults sitting down and planning this, justifying it, and then seeing it through makes my brain want to shut down. And yet, as evidenced by the real-life inspiration from the Hay Institution for Girls, it is entirely possible, today as well. It comes down to attitudes, to ideological mind-sets, to what a collective group of people believe is true and right. That’s how we justify all manner of things, from bombing foreign towns to imprisoning Aboriginal peoples for minor infractions. Wood’s ultimate triumph, in terms of ideas, is to remind us mutable our ideologies really are, and how, for as much as we like to think we are advanced, civilised, better than before, we actually have an awful long way to go. The reason, the ultimate reason why The Natural Way of Things is so disturbing and terrifying, is that there is a part of me that gets it, that understands that there is only a thin membrane of love, compassion and strength keeping women safe in this and many other Western countries.
I hear accounts of people claiming that feminism is no longer needed, isn’t necessary, isn’t important – that plenty of women not only don’t consider themselves feminists, but have come to believe some strange version of reality in which feminism is a negative thing, a repressive or virulent, angry and hateful thing. What could be more successful to the largely-unconscious patriarchal agenda than this re-writing of feminism? Whoever owns the definition of a word, owns the word, and sadly, these days, women no longer own their own word. “Women are their own worst enemy” is a common enough saying – I say it myself – and I believe it is often, sadly, true. We constantly sabotage our own efforts at being – not just taken seriously, but treated equally.
This is captured in rather pessimistic ways by Wood’s characters, from the two main female narrators – Verla, in first-person present-tense, and Yolanda, in third-person past tense – to the other eight girls unjustly imprisoned with them. Verla was involved in an affair with a politician and still, naively, believes that Andrew will come and rescue her, that she’s different from the others, whom she judges almost as harshly as everyone else has done. Yolanda is the most clued-in, but she is also the only one who wasn’t tricked into signing her rights away. She knew something was up, and she fought. They overwhelmed her and drugged her anyway, and she knows no one is coming for them because even her beloved brother was in on it. The other young women, all involved in various different kinds of scandals for which they took all the hate, represent different kinds of women, but none of them are particularly flattering. Barbs, the swimmer, is a big girl who suffers such a violent beating on their first day for speaking out that her jaw is permanently crooked, is obviously the butch one. Three of the girls become obsessed with their body hair, tweezing them out of each other’s bodies, trying to maintain a look that they have long been trained to want. Hetty, “the cardinal’s girl” (and doesn’t that just make you cringe?) is depicted as small-minded and somewhat malicious. The list goes on, none of it flattering.
Yet such is the way Woods has crafted this novel that you come away with a clearer understanding: we’re all flawed, none of us are perfect, we all make mistakes, and while you might not want someone like Hetty as a friend, or even value her as you would Verla, does she deserve this? Hopefully, the answer for all readers is a resounding NO! And as much as I’d like to think, “Oh this could never happen”, a part of me doesn’t really believe that.
I read this – in a day – just as the Briggs scandal broke, and the cricket player Chris Gayle got in trouble for his comments to a female sports reporter. An Age article brought attention to how the woman at the receiving end of Briggs’ unwanted attention was being turned into the scapegoat rather than the victim, while following the Gayle story showed how quickly most of the country went from “His comments to a professional journalist were a swift means of reducing her from a serious journalist to an object for the male gaze” to “this is a complete over-reaction, lighten up, his comments were meant innocently, the political correctness police are going too far”. That reporter understands her male-dominated world and distanced herself from it all, saving her job and her reputation, while the public servant in the Briggs’ case was close to experiencing complete demolition because she made a complaint. It’s telling. There is also the on-going discussions of the high rate of domestic violence in Australia, which is a huge problem and caused by, among other things, this over-arching lack of respect for women.
But none of this would be as memorable and hard-hitting if it weren’t for Wood’s writing. While I thought her control wasn’t consistent and I found the use of present tense annoying and pointless for Verla’s narration, overall it is beautifully and poetically written. Something incredible is done to violence when written in such simple yet beautiful language as this:
One big girl, fair-skinned with fleshy cheeks and wide, swimmer’s shoulders, said irritably, ‘What? We can’t hear you,’ and then closed her eyes against the sun, hands on her hips, murmuring something beneath her breath. So she didn’t see the man’s swift, balletic leap – impossibly pretty and light across the gravel – and a leather-covered baton in his hand coming whack over the side of her jaw. They all cried out with her as she fell, shrieking in pain. Some of their arms came out to try to catch her. They cowered. More than one began crying as they hurried then, into a line. [p.24]
The contrast of Boncer’s ‘swift, balletic leap – impossibly pretty’ with the violent beating of Barb increases the shock value, the sense of wrongness and the realisation of powerlessness. Violence against women (such as domestic violence) has long proved an effective tool in the hands of misogynistic men.
At other times, especially after the power goes out (except for the electric fence) and they run out of food, and begin going crazy in their own separate ways, Wood’s prose captures a primordial truth as well as day-to-day reality:
Yolanda hugged the squishy mint-green and baby-pink packages to her chest, squatting in the grief and shame of how reduced she was by such ordinary things. It was why they were here, she understood now. For the hatred of what came out of you, what you contained. What you were capable of. She understood because she shared it, this dull fear and hatred of her body. It had bloomed inside her all her life, purged but regrowing, unstoppable, every month: this dark weed and the understanding that she was meat, was born to make meat. [p.122]
It is a theme I’ve been interested in for some time now, this idea of shame and women’s bodies, of the successful rewriting and control of women’s bodies by, really, the Catholic Church and then, really, everyone. I’m very much of the mind that women need to reclaim their bodies, their right to their bodies but also how they value them and their needs and desires. I’m resistant to Yolanda’s view, but I can understand it. And in many cultures around the world, past and present, women are controlled through the social traditions dictating behaviour and menstruation. As if, by teaching girls and women to see themselves in this low way, they remove the power that females rightfully possess, out of the age-old fear of woman’s ability to create life. And as is often the way in literature, where this discourse of womanhood and power appear, so too does a representation of the landscape, the natural world:
When she wakes, her face printed with grass blades, she finds her way to a hillside of scrub. She walks in it like a dream, climbing the slope in the noisy silence. Silty leaves cling to the soles of her feet. There is the patter of wet droplets falling from the gently moving leaves far above. High squeaks and tin musical turnings of tiny birds. Sometimes a hard rapid whirr, a sprung diving board, and a large dove explodes from a vine and vanishes. A motorised insect drones by her ear. She looks upwards, upwards, and sees long shreds of bark, or abandoned human skins, hanging in the branches. The bush breathes her in. It inhales her. She is mesmerised by pairs of seed pods nestled at the base of a grass tree: hot orange, bevelled, testicular. [p.135]
A dichotomy of human-made vs. nature is a common-enough theme, but here rendered all the more turbulent and visceral by the circumstances, the very premise of the story. Even the title, The Natural Way of Things, speaks of this idea. It can refer to our determination to claim, possess and control – through language more than anything else – the natural world, which is also representative of womanhood (Mother Earth etc.), and also to a primordial, primitive and thus ‘natural’ way of life, an absence of so-called civilisation – relevant to Yolanda’s increasing strangeness as she becomes one with the land, and Verla’s ultimate decision. It speaks to the sadness I was left with at the end, which presents a kind of either/or scenario: either you live in the ‘civilised’ world and let it dictate who and what you are, or you shun it entirely, abandon it and become ‘primitive’. Again, this is how we often grasp the world, and attempt to tame it: through words, and the positive or negative connotations of words. The ambiguous ending, with its taint of further horror balanced by a thin brush of hope, makes it clear who has really won in this world, which is really our world in disguise.
Make sure, when you start this book, that you have nothing planned for the day, because you’ll want to read it all the way through in one sitting – and should. This is a book I will enjoy re-reading, and pondering anew. It has so far been nominated and longlisted for a couple of awards, and I hope to see it appear on more lists this year. It is a deserving book, working on multiple levels and one of those lovely rare treasures that can be interpreted and experienced in different ways by different readers, making it rich and unique. Comparisons have been made (in the blurb) to The Handmaid’s Tale and Lord of the Flies, but ‘comparison’ is the wrong word for it: it is more that The Natural Way of Things has joined an on-going exploration into human behaviour, the powerful dominance of ideologies and their effect on both individuals and culture, and violence.
“I’d be stunned and disappointed if The Natural Way if Things isn’t shortlisted for both the Miles Franklin Award and The Stella Prize.” Devoted Eclectic
“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.” Debbish
“Wood’s portrayal of the stark beauty of rural Australia, which heavily uses imagery (such as the mysterious white horse) and allusion, is powerful and sensual. Even at its most brutal there’s something intensely lyrical about her writing.” Still Not Fussed
“There is a deep undercurrent of rage running throughout this novel, but it never quite comes to the surface. For me this caused the book to suffer, but I think for other readers this will perfectly capture how they feel about issues of gender inequality. There is a real sense of powerlessness pervading every word on every page, which makes it a not altogether pleasant experience to read, but does not diminish the accomplishment with which it is written.” Babbling Books
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