CHARLOTTE WOOD The Natural Way of Things. Reviewed by Kylie Mason
Wood’s remarkable insight into human nature and deft control of her characters create a narrative that strikes to the heart of gender relations.
Yolanda and Verla meet in a bare room, dressed in identical cumbersome outfits and beset by a post-sedative haze. It isn’t clear how they came to be in the room, nor why they are there. But leaving the room will be the first step into their new reality: they, along with eight other women, are prisoners, held in a deserted outback settlement, watched over by two careless men and enclosed by an electric fence. Heads shaved, shackled to one another, the women are forced into hard labour:
In the days to come she will learn what she is, what they all are … They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.
Time passes, and the women’s hope of release or rescue dwindles as they submit to their new life. The women question themselves, their pasts and the events that led to them being incarcerated as they are stripped of their humanity and broken down by abuse and fear. When it becomes clear that they are all being punished for the same transgression, the women form an uncomfortable and unreliable alliance, intent on surviving any way they can:
Was it the softness, perhaps, that made them want it so much? And hate it so much? The body was separate from her, it was a thing she wore. The things that were done to it had nothing to do with her, Yolanda, at all.
But afterwards she was told it wasn’t the body, it was her own desire … So now she lay on the bed and waited, which was kind of funny because doing that was what had started all this. But nothing could be more different, because here was the rasping nightgown even in the heat, the vast empty land outside coming alive and nobody caring where she was, even her troublesome body forgotten except for this: to march, to feel pain, to hunger and thirst, to eat and to sleep, to piss and shit and bleed.
Charlotte Wood’s fifth novel, The Natural Way of Things, is the work of a writer at the height of her powers. It takes great skill to explore society’s misogyny in such an extraordinarily believable and terrifying way. Frugal yet elegant writing brings the dystopian camp to stark life; not a word is wasted in laying the women’s experiences bare, nor any horror left unspoken. There is a sense of timelessness to the prose, too; although the women have clearly come from the modern world, the camp has a feeling of existing outside of time: no matter that the transgressions initially have uniquely 21st-century consequences – media and online attacks among them – the punishment is as old as human civilisation. As are the characters’ reactions to their situation, because self-preservation informs so many of the choices the women and their captors make, especially once it becomes clear there is to be no release for either the prisoners or the guards – they have been abandoned.
Wood’s remarkable insight into human nature and deft control of her characters create a narrative that strikes to the heart of gender relations, laying bare the hatred and disgust at the core of so many. In this novel, neither women nor men are spared the damage done by such attitudes, as the male captors’ decline shrewdly demonstrates. All the characters pay the price for continuing to see women as objects, as subservient to men, as nuisances that must be controlled. Bold, provocative, startling and thoughtful, The Natural Way of Things is what fiction should be.
Charlotte Wood The Natural Way of Things Allen & Unwin 320pp $29.99
Kylie Mason is a freelance book editor based in Sydney.
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