The Natural Way of Things

Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things
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The Natural Way of Things

Charlotte Wood

Winner of the 2016 Stella Prize


Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in a broken-down property in the middle of a desert. 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…

With extraordinary echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale and Lord of the Flies, The Natural Way of Things is a compulsively readable, scarifying and deeply moving contemporary novel. It confirms Charlotte Wood’s position as one of our most thoughtful, provocative and fearless truth-tellers, as she unflinchingly reveals us and our world to ourselves…

Review

I read The Natural Way of Things in one sitting several weeks ago and it kicked up a lot of dust that is only now settling. It has been compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, rightly so, and returning to that novel after twenty years has gone some way in helping me to understand what I loved about Charlotte Wood’s contemporary, Australian version.

When writers create terrifying, unjust situations for their characters – like the forced imprisonment of a group of women in a desert prison compound, as occurs in The Natural Way of Things – they explain the wider situation to the reader with world-building. Seeing the bigger picture satisfies our curiosity and gives us context; perhaps it also distances us from the situation, if only falsely. But The Natural Way of Things doesn’t do this as such. Rather than setting a new context, Wood presents to us a microcosm; a crude, intelligently formed physical manifestation of the way we torture and humiliate women for being what used to be quaintly called ‘fallen’.

This approach allows Wood to look more intensely (than, say, Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale) at the transformation of several women under these brutal circumstances. We also witness the transformation of the two men and one woman who are ostensibly in charge of the compound, although it becomes clear that something bigger and more mysterious is really in charge. The reader’s knowledge is invited into the landscape of the novel: quickly we recognise what we’re seeing – heads shaved, shapeless uniforms, violence and humiliation. The women are chained to each other and live in small, hot cells (old shearers’ quarters). While some parts of the prison seem makeshift, the electric fence surrounding them is hi-tech and quietly terrifying. We almost know what this is, on a visceral level as well as intellectually, but we don’t yet understand why.

Glimpses of the past life of the two brilliantly drawn women we form an allegiance with – Verla and Yolanda – give us the context we need. The relationship that develops between them is powerful and unsentimental, the group dynamics horribly plausible. What justice we eventually get is twisted and difficult to celebrate, but by then any sense of evil punished is impossible to resist.

I was gripped by the full-bodied, precise prose. Wood deftly shows us how we are savage, revolting, tender, desperate, and especially how we survive. For me it is the transformation of Yolanda that is the most affecting and thrilling. The ending of the novel is its own triumph.


Emily Gale is a freelance reviewer.

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