Disturbing and unnerving in the best possible ways, this a gripping story about what happens when women are hated, simply for being women
What the back cover says:
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.
The Natural Way of Things is a gripping, starkly imaginative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control, and of what it means to hunt and be hunted. Most of all, it is the story of two friends, their sisterly love and courage.
When Julia Gillard delivered her now famous misogyny speech, it registered in the Parliament as little more than a paper cut, part of the ‘theatre’ of parliament, in Tony Abbott’s words.
But this was no mere flesh wound. Gillard had hit an artery. On that day, she spoke not only for herself, but for every woman who had ever experienced a slight, an insult or a put-down on the basis of gender.
Gillard was a woman unleashed, in the same way that Charlotte Wood is a writer unleashed in The Natural Way of Things.
As I read this book, with its seething anger and constant under-currents of brutality, I had visions of Wood, writing the manuscript with a snarl on her face, and hammering at the keys until her fingers bled.
I’d be surprised if her keyboard survived the onslaught.
When Yolanda and Verla find themselves imprisoned on a deserted outback farmhouse, heads shaved, and forced to wear bonnets and boots, they begin to understand the links between themselves, and the 8 other women facing the same fate.
‘…they are the minister’s-little-travel-tramp and that-Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pit-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.’
You recognise these women? I certainly do. And I cannot for the life of me work out why do we do this. Why do we blame and shame women in instances where it is clear that men have done wrong, or at least have been an equal party for the wrong-doing?
Certainly we don’t imprison women for their involvement in sex scandals (though we have done in the past. Read this SMH profile piece for where Wood took inspiration for the book) but we certainly treat them poorly. The Natural Way of Things just imagines this treatment being taken to a more extreme, though not entirely unthinkable, level.
‘Would it be said they were abandoned or taken the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.’
At first, the women rail against their debasement into an primitive, animalistic, way of life.
You need to know what you are. Verla is not an animal.
But as it becomes clear that the women have been abandoned, even by their captors, both Verla and Yolanda begin to embrace their animal tendencies. To be animal is not about debasement, it is about survival and freedom and nobility. In order to feed the camp, Yolanda takes to hunting rabbits.
Yolanda was a creature moving as she should, held to the earth with purpose and gravity, labouring in the work of birth out in the darkening fields beneath the raining sky.
(BTW – how beautiful is the rhythm and imagery of that sentence?)
In The Natural Way of Things, the environment is as much the women’s captor as the shadowy Hardings International. Sure, there is a live electric fence around the camp, but beyond that is a gigantic nothingness that poses as much threat to their survival as the fence.
‘It cannot be the outback, where Verla has never been. Has anyone? The outback is supposed to have red earth. This earth beneath her boots is not red. You could not even call it earth; just threadbare ground, grey gravel, dust.’
I made the mistake of finishing this book just before bed-time. After I read the last page, I couldn’t sleep. And not just because of the brutality (the scenes where Yolanda and Verla reach for each others’ hands are so moving and life-affirming) but because there was so much to think about and many, many questions to ponder!
The next morning, I started reading it again, to see what I had missed. There are clues, but not answers – and this is part of Wood’s mastery. This book is not a misogyny speech. It is not polemic. It is, first and foremost, a gripping story. Not a horror story for there is a point to the darkness – and it is about the way we are all debased when women are hated simply for being women.