“She hears her own thick voice deep inside her ears when she says, ‘I need to know where I am.’ The man stands there, tall and narrow, hand still on the doorknob, surprised. He says, almost in sympathy, ‘Oh, sweetie. You need to know what you are.’”
– The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood.
Brave, confronting, revengeful and gut wrenching, Charlotte Wood’s new release is a truly unique work of fiction.
Describing ‘The Natural Way of Things’ is no easy feat, for within its 313 pages it explores, projects and uncovers a myriad of social issues, each complex and multi-layered. With vivid storytelling, realism and relateable characters (despised and loved), Wood’s has given a voice and face to misogyny, gender inequality and the ever-present ‘slut shaming’. Above all, ‘The Natural Way of Things’ is an incredibly vivid story of survival, set within a harsh dystopian Australian outback.The story begins with two young women, strangers to each other, who awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves held captive in a broken-down property. Imprisoned by their captors – ‘Boncer,’ a man who controls with his baton and lustful, violent gaze, and ‘Teddy,’ a more quietly dangerous threat – the women soon discover they are not alone; 8 other women are also being held captive. Dressed in uniforms of calico tunics, dirty bonnets and leather boots, the girls find themselves chained together, marching through the paddocks day after day, and labouring under the harsh sun. They are given no detailed explanation for their abduction and imprisonment, no answer to their questions of ‘why’. No, there is only one lesson their captors want to enforce. The women must learn ‘what’ they are.
Slowly each girl discover the link which ties them together – each has been at the center of a sexual scandal with a powerful man. The mistress of a man in government…the young singer who was assaulted by her ‘mentor’… ‘Mile High Izzy’ who got involved with an airline CEO…each woman’s story is different, but each is there to learn their place; to be punished for the crime of being involved with a powerful man.
As the months begin to drag by, the women are both hopeful and skeptical of rescue. Are they part of some sick reality show? Will the mysterious ‘Hardings’ finally show up and take them home? Will today be the day they are reunited with their families? Is anyone searching for them?
Deprived of their rights and made to navigate between a mentally deranged, pill-popping ‘nurse,’ and their two sadistic jailers, things soon take a surprising turn. It is not just the women who are imprisoned; the jailers have also become the jailed. Hardings is not coming for them, winter is approaching, and soon, there will be no food.
Reading through the novel, I was fascinated in the way that the landscape, a harsh natural prison, gradually morphed into a place of belonging. With freedom out of reach beyond the 6 meter high electrical fence, each girl is forced to adapt to her surroundings, and for some, the isolation brings forth new self-realisation. Likewise, the way in which the young women change and grow, and how they survive amidst the most debase of environments, is something that can only be appreciated through sticking the story out from start to finish – through all its guts and glory.
I will admit that I found the novel difficult to persist with in parts – not in regard to content, as might be expected, but in terms of its structuring. Quite often I found the phrasing of sentences to be awkward and difficult to understand, and I would have to read certain paragraphs multiple times before understanding what was being said. I also felt it would have been beneficial to explore in more depth some of the character’s back stories – in particular Yolanda – and to have given more light to who ‘Hardings’ were, and how the captors came to be there.
Although these issues lead me to grow frustrated at times, I was glad I persisted with the novel, as overall, ‘The Natural Way of Things’ is a truly unique work of fiction with a gripping ending.
In its favour, I would note that Wood’s depictions of her characters, and more-so their development, is one of the book’s main strengths. Although each character is uniquely interesting, Yolanda’s development is particularly striking. Beautiful, tall and ‘prized’ by men her whole life, Yolanda knows that she is not safe in this cruel prison. She knows that Boncer watches her, with hatred yet longing, labeling her a dirty, disgusting slut – and yet in private, he deliberates with Teddy over who will ‘have’ her. It is a terrifyingly accurate depiction of the ingrained misogyny in our world, a fictional depiction of real life, where some men long to punish the women they ‘can’t have;’ to sexually control a woman and then discard her afterward as an object.
It is only a matter of time before Yolanda must come face to face with Boncer, and it soon becomes apparent that she will not be controlled – by him, by others, or anyone. As food begins to run out, Yolanda becomes the savior of the prison, using an old rusty pair of rabbit traps to catch and kill; taking the poor animals within her hands and skinning away their fur. As the seasons change, Yolanda begins to slip away from her former self, becoming one with the animals and the earth. With hands that are now calloused, her shaved hair growing back in thick ugly tufts, and the rusty traps hanging from her hips along with the stinking skins of the rabbits, she is a terrifying and wild figure; a picture of female strength, a stark refusal in the face of patriarchal expectation.
Without spoiling the ending for those who wish to read, I will just say this: escape and survival come in many forms; not all who escape will do so in the traditional sense, and for those who do, will they want the life that was once theirs?
Finishing the novel literally left me breathless, longing to know the fate of each woman, and blown away by the depth of Wood’s storytelling. ‘The Natural Way of Things’ is truly a book like no other, and one that deserves a spot in every bookshelf.