Following is Angela Long’s review of the 5th book shortlisted in the The Stella Prize 2016.
Title: The Natural Way of Things
Author: Charlotte Wood
Publisher: Allen and Unwin 2015
Angela’s Review: Initially inspired to write a novel based on the internment of young women at the ‘Hay Institution for Girls’, Charlotte Wood found her writing stalled. It was at this point she realised there was a far greater story that needed to be told. The work born from that realisation is a timely piece that questions the contemporary ideals of misogyny, gender values, human rights and corporate power.
When ten women wake imprisoned in a heavily secured property in the Australian outback, they have no idea why they are there, what binds them together. They’ve committed no crime, no act of violence or theft, they’re not guilty of sedition or terrorism. Dehumanised—chained together, heads shaved, clothes replaced by shapeless uniforms—they are forced into hard labour, paralleling the Hay institution and WWII concentration camps. These women have no rights, their lives have been taken outside the careful control of society privilege; their abandonment made worse by the knowledge that it was their trusted loved ones who have been complicit in their incarceration.
The story unfolds through the two opposing viewpoints of Yolanda and Verla. Slowly the women realise the one thing that links them; a sexual scandal and a powerful man. One of the strengths of the novel is that Woods hasn’t loaded the narrative with cliché rants on feminism, or tied the women into a sisterhood that stands against the tyranny and injustice of men. Instead she levels equal culpability to both sexes for the systems that represses them. This ‘outing’ of a culture that supports victim blaming, was at once abhorrent and yet all too familiar. Rarely a week goes by where women who, by choice or accident, are brought into the harsh spotlight of the public gallery and judged by their peers to be implicated in their own demise. Victims of abuse who speaks out against the footballer, actor, singer—any one of society’s heroes—face the speculation that it’s for the attention, the payout, the 10 minutes of fame. Sadly women are equal perpetrators in the protection of men and the vilification of women.
When Verla remembers the social commentary around Mile-High Izzy, ‘the voices of girls everywhere snorted into their vodkas, not as if he even raped her … all that for a snapped bra strap!’ I read this and heard echoes of dinner table conversations, and felt my own stab of guilt. Woods characters are misogynistic by their own actions and thoughts. Early on when Verla recognises Hetty—one of the other prisoners—she sees ‘what the cardinal had seen … the ferocious carnality … (she) was a little muscled dog that knew how to bite and how to indiscriminately f—.’ Verla knows that others have thought this about her; ‘But with Hetty it is true.’ Centuries on and after decades of discussion about feminism and equality, we are still branding each other with a scarlet letter.
The patriarchal systems, that the women trust and believe in, have betrayed them. Society, government and family has failed in its ability to protect them. In this dystopian world where even the jailers become inmates, Verla reflects that ‘Somewhere in this same country there are cities and the internet and governments … all going about their business.’ and yet it appears that they are able to disappear at the hands of the corporation ‘Hardings’, and no-one comes looking. They are yesterday’s news.
The landscape plays an important role within the layers of the story, its beauty hiding a dangerous underbelly. So too the characters. There is a natural way for each of us and our path to self-preservation is decided by many factors. The basic need for food causes one person to hunt, the other to bequest favours; and the need for love creates the strangest bedfellows. Each of the women establish their own coping mechanisms, some at odds to the beliefs of the others. The novel is heavy with symbolism and the ending will lead to many book group discussions. My own group were completely divided, which in its own way is reflective of Wood’s narrative. Whether you love The Natural Way of Things or not, in the vein of classics like ‘The Handmaids Tale’ it opens dialogue and discussion on what it is to be a woman, how do we want to be treated and most importantly—how do we treat each other.
For more information please see the author’s website: Charlotte Wood
2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge: This book has been read and reviewed by Angela Long for Welcome to my Library for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information please see their website ‘Supporting and promoting books by Australian women’