Review: The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

Monday, 22 February 2016

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
Released: 1st October 2015
Published by: Allen and Unwin
Genre: Adult Literature
Source: Library
Pages: 320
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in an abandoned property in the middle of a desert in a story of two friends, sisterly love and courage - a gripping, starkly imaginative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control, and of what it means to hunt and be hunted. 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.
Upon searching for something to read outside the YA genre, I came across The Natural Way of Things; a novel which I knew had reached critical acclaim and was sure to be a poignant read. On that basis, I was not disappointed. This book is one where every sentence, every word holds an implication of something more, and thought provoking from beginning to end. With a resolute focus on the all pervasive bureaucratic control of women and the bonds which form between those in confinement, a story like this is sure to make you think about how the situation portrayed might just be a surreal interpretation of the attitudes prevalent in our own society.

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.

There is some comparison to be made with The Handmaid's Tale here, as Verla, Yolanda and the other women are trapped in a compound against their will. However, unlike Atwoods tale, these inmates are taken from their lives for a different reason - all of them have been sexually assaulted or abused in some way. While the details of their backgrounds are not made entirely explicit, it is enough for the reader to understand that they have been stereotyped and blamed for the fate that has befallen them. Society has no place for these 'fallen women' who, according to everyone else - brought their situation upon themselves. Their captors place threats against them both through words and actions, their prey forced to live in their desert cage with only the most basic necessities, and are treated as subservient laborers, barely even human. It is the undulating tensions and shifting dynamics of the group as a whole which provide the reader with some kind of morbid fascination at what is occurring, as each woman copes with the situation differently.

At night she dreamed herself with claws, digging a burrow. Tunneling out under the fence, into the teeming bush. Not returning to her old life, never back there, but inwards, downwards, running on all fours, smelling the grass and the earth as familiar as her own body. She dreamed of an animal freedom.

There is however something primal about the whole situation as the predicament of the women prolongs over the seasons. While some rely on the rituals of grooming, or a mantra calling upon the divine for some kind of intervention, others embrace the wilderness and almost become one with the land. Whilst there is some sense of solidarity among the group, it is unsurprising that a survival instinct for some supersedes all other priorities. Yet above all, what power Verla and her comrades have left inside them to determine what happens next in their lives may be small - but combined is still a force in itself. The complex sort of relationship between Verla and Yolanda themselves is perhaps one of the most interesting to observe, as they both seem to be the most rational at the beginning yet evolve the most by the end.

Free us, free us. But once Yolanda was out in the breze, walking through the grass for her traps, Hetty's words were nothing but the same old eternal hopeless prayer, as much as hey diddle diddle or i will survive. Hetty's prayer was only words, as light and dry as old eucalyptus leaves, crumbling in your fingers.

If one thing's for sure, it is that this is no light read. It is harrowing from the start, and at many times disturbing. This 'shock factor' is not the only thing which makes this novel memorable though. There is just something about the ebb and flow of the prose, which holds an inherent lingering frustration over what these women must endure, what lengths they must reach in order to feel human, or morph into another being altogether. Despite their bleak prospects, there is hope that 'Hardings', the name engraved on the very crockery they eat on, may still be shining somewhere out there beyond the electric fence. Through Wood's masterful manipulation of prose, there is a myriad of emotions evoked in us readers. We too are drawn into the tribulations of the characters, their struggle to survive, and the fleeting euphoria when perhaps the end to it all is in sight.

Because Yolanda may have her rabbits, Hetty her religion, they may all have their pets, but only Verla had a plan. Observe, identify, classify. Preserve, conserve, bide your time, wait your chance. Then: act.

Final Thoughts

The Natural Way of Things is a perturbing and memorable read. A tale of solidarity, survival and seeking unspoken retribution for an unjust fate, this novel is one even weeks on, I feel I won't be forgetting anytime soon. Charlotte Wood has epitomised the power of words and how they can really challenge the overarching paradigms of our age.

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