The Natural Way of Things
By Charlotte Wood
Europa Editions: June 28, 2016
$17.00, 230 pages
Summer is seen as a time to read light-hearted, romantic novels or thrillers. Something to read on the plane or at the beach. But just as some moviegoers seek out serious dramas during the summer special effects blockbuster season, some readers still crave serious fiction with something important to say. One cannot live on genre fiction alone (can one?).
The Natural Way of Things fits the bill. Australian novelist Charlotte Wood has written a novel set in the near future that is nevertheless a story of and for these times. It is in the narrowest sense a dystopian novel, in that it describes a circumstance that does not yet exist but that requires very little suspension of disbelief to accept. It is this close to being plausible. It has already made a big impression in Wood’s home of Australia, where it was awarded the 2016 Stella Prize as the best novel by an Australian woman.
The story begins as two young women, Yolanda and Verla, awaken from a drug-induced sleep to find themselves prisoners of some sort. They have no idea where they are, who is responsible, or how they got there. Nor do they know why they are in this silent place. Before long, they discover that they are on an isolated, abandoned sheep station in the Australian bush, along with eight other girls in their late teens and twenties. They begin to recognize a few of the girls from sex scandals involving powerful and influential men in the government, organized religion, and business world.
What follows is an experiment in punishment and degradation that seems to have been concocted by modern-day sadistic Puritans. The girls are forced to wear old-fashioned farm-type clothing made of coarse materials, including a bonnet and stiff, ill-fitting leather boots. They are given food that would make convicted murderers go on a hunger strike, and suffer near-constant verbal and physical abuse from two young male guards who seem to have little idea what they are doing and no supervision. A young woman prepares the meals. No one appears to be in charge. The girls overhear something about a crew from Hardings returning later. This corporate entity, with which they are unfamiliar, is evidently in charge of the prison camp.
Verla soon realizes the truth of her situation when she recalls the head guard’s misogynistic rant soon after her arrival. “Boncer’s words return. In the days to come she will learn what she is, what they all are. That they are the minister’s-little-travel-tramp and that-Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pigs-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.”
The ten girls face their desperate circumstances in varying ways, some believing their families will find them and release them, others soon concluding that no one knows what has happened to them–that they have essentially disappeared–and unsure of whether escape is even possible. Early on, they are marched across the compound, up a long incline through a thicket of trees until they reach a steel fence. Its steady drone can both be heard and felt coming up from the ground. Boncer demonstrates vividly its effect on anyone who tries to escape.
Over time tenuous friendships and fierce rivalries develop. Verla and Yolanda recognize a similar seriousness of purpose in each other and share a mutual acknowledgment that they are the only two who are capable of figuring out a solution to their dilemma. Their responses differ, but their grudging respect for each other leads to a distant, almost wordless partnership based on their determination to survive. The other girls alternate between supporting and terrorizing each other in a situation reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. Thoughts of escape are thwarted by various methods. The situation becomes even more desperate when Hardings does not arrive as expected. The tension is ratcheted up as the guards realize they too are trapped on the station and rapidly running out of supplies.
Wood’s narrative is taut and unrelenting; we experience the dire circumstances along with the girls, as both the characters and reader slowly discover what they are dealing with. The Natural Way of Things is a riveting read, as you charge through the book seeking answers to several burning questions. Who is behind the corporation that runs the prison? How long has this been going on? Are they the first girls or just the latest cohort? Will they be released? When, and what will determine that? Will conditions improve or worsen? What is the point of it all? What is going on in the outside world at the same time?
Wood uses the allegory of this group of young women imprisoned for their sexual escapades to explore the contemporary landscape of widespread misogyny, in which victims of rape and sexual assault are put on trial in the media and in the courtroom, and in which reality TV culture is so omnipresent that even a presidential campaign can feel like a bizarre and interminable episode of Punk’d. It is a world where people seem more fully engaged on social media than in their actual lives and where faceless corporations are an inextricable part of our lives, often knowing more about us than we could imagine. But resentment of the gender double standard has reached critical mass and women–and their male allies–are fighting back.
Wood’s prose has a spare, poetic beauty that matches the austere beauty of the Australian bush setting, which is palpable. One can feel the blazing heat, see the dust in the air, and hear the oppressive silence from the isolation. In The Natural Way of Things Wood has created a world that is equal parts Mad Max: Fury Road and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In the last 50 pages, the narrative increases in pace and intensity, hurtling toward its literally stunning conclusion. Having reached the end, you will sit there slack-jawed, processing the final images and extending them to create your own epilogue.
The Natural Way of Things is a novel that is not easily forgotten. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea–this one has a bit of arsenic in it–but those who crave a gut-punch of a book with crisp writing, memorable characters, and thought-provoking subject matter will find it an immersive and disturbing reading experience.