The Natural Way of Things
The Stella Prize (2016)
I was lured into reading The Natural Way of Things by two things.
One – Someone said “this looks totally up your alley”.
Two – After reading the blurb, I realized that reason one was completely accurate; this book was totally up my alley. I love Love LOVE deeply haunting, dramatic books.
Recently, I have found myself reading quite a few hard-hitting dramas surrounding women and the rights that they hold on their own bodies. From Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State to the upcoming bound-to-be-a-cult-classic Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed. It seems everyone has a different take and view on how the world sees women. The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood was no exception to this, but it was definitely the darkest of the three novels (and, trust me, that is saying something).
I have to say though, that despite The Natural Way of Things’ darkness, it’s just so gripping. There’s a good reason that it has won the Australian Independent Booksellers Indie Book Award for Book of the Year.
It begins with two women waking up in a room that they do not recognize. They have been drugged and kidnapped and the book starts as disorientating as its main two characters are. I started with so many questions – Who had done this? Why? Where were they being held and for what reason? We come to find out that the women are being held captive in the Australian outback and we learn little titbits as to why. Wood doesn’t spoonfeed her reader anything and instead, makes you infer meaning from the pieces that she gives you. It’s clever and completely compelling.
The Natural Way of Things follows Yolanda and Verla, two young women who both have sordid paths and have each suffered from a sex-related scandal. They, and their eight fellow captives have had their heads shaved, been dressed in an unflattering uniform and bonnet, are fettered together and are told to march. They walk and walk and walk until they reach an abandoned compound in the middle of nowhere. Here the women are kept and told that they will remain until something or someone called ‘Hardings’ arrives. They are beaten, treated abysmally and called sluts and whores at all points.
It slowly comes to pass that Verla and Yolanda are not the only ones who have suffered sexually. Each and every one of the ten girls have suffered some form of sexual abuse and their past is why they have been kidnapped. They are to be kept away from society because, supposedly in society’s eyes, these women are monsters. They’re deemed sexual beasts that have brought all of their suffering upon themselves.
The way Wood talks about the female body and the male gaze upon that body is extraordinary. She writes about the sexual assaults of the women’s past in varying tones but namely through Yolanda’s eyes. It is she that asks “was it the softness, perhaps, that made [men] want it so much? And hate it so much?” Yolanda’s own past is the most explicit of the captives’ and is the backstory that is fleshed out the most.
She also ponders if it is “femaleness [that is] always at the center, 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.” It’s an awful revelation but one that rings scarily accurate through the book. Wood sculpts this idea that these girls all ‘brought it upon themselves’ but the question as to whether they deserve this foul treatment as punishment is the destination of the narrative.
As the story escalates, the women morph and change into very different people. When the power goes off and food becomes scarce, the story takes off. It’s at this point that it will take a crowbar to take you away from those pages. I read the middle half of this book in one sitting. I couldn’t stop.
Verla and Yolanda’s friendship was unlike the others; “[they] hold themselves apart, for survival. This is their bond.” They are kindred spirits and compliment each other at every turn. Yolanda becomes the hunter, half woman, half beast. She is the supplier of food for the entire camp and does the jobs that the other girls won’t or cannot do. Verla is the gatherer, she hunts what she can collect from nature. They understand each other, they support each other, and though they barely speak, you know that they are all that the other has.
The girls are kept by three captors; two men and one needy, and rather damaged, girl. The captors are one of the most confusing parts of this story. We learn about them as the girls eavesdrop on their conversations. Teddy is a hapless traveler who is in it for the money; it was an easy gig. Boncer, on the other hand, is a master of the cruel. I, in all honesty, don’t want to know what his deal was. He was horrendous, weak-minded and evil. From the moment I met the real Boncer, as he hurled one of the girls into the electric fence just to prove that was functional, I hated him. This hate turned to pity and back to hate so often that the finale of the book left me gasping, not knowing how to feel.
In fact, that is how I feel about The Natural Way of Things in general. It was a very grueling but equally thought-provoking a read. The title is clever and made me wonder what the natural way of things really meant. Was it irony? Was it because the women were forced to live in the most natural, return to nature kind of way? Or was it, as Wood so eloquently put it, because this really is the natural way of things and this book is just a narrative on how society treats women?
I have spoken about this book to quite a few people after finishing it. Wood’s turn of phrase, simple use of language and fierce characterisation had me on the edge of my seat at all turns. Yes, it was dark and harrowing but it was also completely compelling. It is a book that needs to be read and definitely needs to be discussed. If not because of its superb character and pace, then because of the messages that it is so eloquently (sometimes forcibly – like a frying pan to the face – and sometimes subtly) brings across.
Verla and Yolanda are two characters that will remain with me for a long time, but their fellow captives will remain with me just as long. Sad and pitiable Nancy, irritating but self-sacrificing Hetty, fierce Barb and mysterious but strong Joy. Their powerful voices and sad stories are etched on my brain and in my heart.