I ended 2015 reading The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood, and was truly spellbound by the book at every level. It was a book that was as intriguing and compelling to read as it was unsettling and thought-provoking, and I can’t think of a stronger, braver novel to finish off the year with.
The Natural Way of Things begins in media res, with two young women waking up from a drugged state to find themselves held captive in the middle of nowhere in the Australian outback. Like a scene from a horror movie, Yolanda and Verla become prisoners (along with eight other women) to a small crew of brutally violent and degrading captors waiting for the elusive ‘Hardings’ to visit the compound.
Yolanda gasped aloud at the feel of her own half-shorn head. The razor stopped for a moment, held in mid-air. The stoner looked at her, irritable. He frowned and said, ‘Shut up.’ And then experimentally, as if testing the word, as if he’d never said it before, had just learned it, added, ‘You slut.’"
The Natural Way of Things, page 16
It is quickly established that all the women have been involved in high-profile sex scandals, although how they came to be captured, drugged, and locked up remains a mystery for much of the novel. Wood deliberately keeps vital facts about these circumstances from the reader, putting them in the same confused state as the women.
There are numerous questions that Wood raises, and not all of them are answered by the end of the novel: who is ‘Hardings’, why these women and not others, how long will they be here, why don’t they try to overpower their guards? (For those who have read the novel, Wood has Tweeted a hint towards the identity of Hardings.)
As the novel progresses, and it becomes clear to the reader that these questions (and many others) will not be presented so easily, these mysteries almost become irrelevant when compared with the sufferings of the captives.
At the very bottom of the box was something Yolanda recognised from long, long ago. So small and domestic and ordinary she began to cry. It was the shiny pastel plastic packaging of sanitary napkins…
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."
The Natural Way of Things, page 120-122
The women learn to adapt, they fall into prescribed roles – they must survive, somehow. Yolanda and Verla take charge of the novel with their unique character developments: Yolanda becomes a huntress, wreathed in the skins of rabbits, embodying the earth; Verla is driven by quiet revenge.
It was all too easy to become lost in The Natural Way of Things. I found myself devouring Wood’s prose, and am still haunted by many of her animalistic images, by the sickness of the characters, and the raw power of the women’s stories.
The Natural Way of Things is much more than a dystopian story about a group of degraded women in an unbearable situation; it is much more than heart-wrenching imagery and lines of prose that thump you in the chest.
Wood has written an allegory for our society’s treatment of women, through channels such as social media and domestic violence. Just as the women in The Natural Way of Things are intimidated, violated, reduced to their barest pieces, so many people in our world have their rights to privacy, their rights to safety, their rights to humanity, dissolved.
Though The Natural Way of Things is an extreme set of circumstances, there were many moments when I found myself thinking, ‘yes, yes, yes, we are all these women, every day’.
When we check over our shoulders as we walk to our cars; when we feel obligated to give up our bodies; when we receive threats for posting a selfie; we are all these women. And of course, you don’t need to actually be a woman to relate to any of that.
The Natural Way of Things is a powerful story about being made to feel small, and helpless. It is also a story about the need to fight back, the need to find yourself, the need to survive - to live day-to-day.
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Length: 320 pages