Kate’s Review: “The Natural Way of Things”

28251422Book: “The Natural Way of Things” by Charlotte Wood

Publishing Info: Europa Editions, June 2016 (originally Allen & Unwin, October 2015)

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: 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.

Review: Have you ever wondered what it would be like to read a version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” that was amped up on steroids? Well “The Natural Way of Things” takes it a few steps further and puts it on PCP. This is one of the books that I heard about through a description my mother sent me via email. She knows what I like. Set in a desolate Outback wasteland, I also got hints of “Mad Max: Fury Road” from this book, as it’s a violent tale of misogyny run amok. Unfortunately in this one the imprisoned women don’t have an Imperator Furiosa or Max Rockatansky there to whisk them away in a tanker truck. These women, their crimes getting caught in a sex scandal with a man or men with a considerable amount of power, are trapped in a desert complex with sadistic guards and a dwindling food supply. Rough, rough stuff. Thanks for sending it my way, Mom. This is the same woman who sent me a review of the awesome “What Belongs To You”, a book that starts with a gay hook-up in a public bathroom in Bulgaria.

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Probably my Mom whenever she shoots me an edgy book recommendation. (source)

But I’m glad that it’s rough stuff. I like that Charlotte Wood takes a hideous thing and doesn’t make it titillating, doesn’t gloss it over. There are descriptions in this book, from wounds to violence to homemade tampons with gross supplies, that made me cringe and flinch. The crime these women committed was the crime of being sexual beings whose sexuality threatened male power structures. Is it a little on the nose? Sure. But that doesn’t make it any less effective.

We mainly follow two women in particular. There’s the young and fierce Yolanda, who had sex with a number of players on a sports team (though the consent of this was, to me, questionable at best). Then there’s Verla, a bit more mild mannered and caught in an affair with a high powered politician. They cope in different ways with their capture. Yolanda becomes obsessed with trapping and skinning rabbits for food, while Verla hunts ceaselessly for mushrooms. Their routines and their deep friendship is what keeps them going, but their circumstances are so horrific you kind of wonder why they would want to. I loved both of them in their own ways, Yolanda for her ferocity and Verla for her cunning. They are strong in very different ways, being two examples of well written and tough female characters who are still realistic within their circumstances. The other women are also given a lot of depth, with a lot of them having their own unique personalities. Some of them are kind, others are not, but they are all victims and Wood makes it clear that none of them deserve what is being heaped upon them.

Wood’s writing is literary and her prose is haunting. There are passages and phrases in this book that flow effortlessly and evoke vivid imagery. She portrayed this camp so well that I could see the dust in the air, feel the heat, smell the stenches. It was a hard read, but in it’s horror and devastation there was a beauty in her words and a poetry in her writing. Her characters are also well drawn out, from the prisoners to the guards as well. There are a couple of guards we focus on, and while they do have their moments of extreme violence towards women, their disdain for women in general adds to the violence in another way. One of the guards is described as a hippie type who loves yoga, but his poisonous bile he spews about his ex girlfriend goes to show that words can also reduce women to animals, almost as much as leashes and prisons can. I almost had a harder time reading these horrible words he was saying about a woman who wasn’t even present, just because who knows how many women are spoken of in such a dehumanizing and objectifying way every minute of every day. This was the realest part of the book, and it was a punch in the gut.

I think that the only part of this book I had an actual critical hard time with (because I mean, I had a hard time with a lot of it) was that I wasn’t totally certain if this was supposed to be set in the present, real Australia, or a fictional dystopian Australia. Lots of people have listed it as Sci-Fi and Speculative fiction, but I didn’t really see much that would imply that this was the case. Well, outside of the whole ‘women rounded up and sent to a prison camp for being involved in sex scandals’ thing. I guess that to me it didn’t really scream Sci-Fi as a whole with just that aspect of it.

In a time where rape culture and misogyny is being spoken of more and more, I think that a book like “The Natural Way of Things” is an important work to showcase and talk about. “Mad Max: Fury Road” brought up these themes and attracted the ire of angry misogynists all over the Internet. “The Natural Way of Things” pushes these themes further, and flat out spits in the faces of those same creeps. It wasn’t an easy book to read, but it’s scathing take down of societal hypocrisy and violent chauvinism makes it a must read.

Rating 8: A scathing and well written novel about dangerous misogyny and rebellion. This should probably be on Women’s Studies reading lists everywhere, and that’s not snark.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Natural Way of Things” is included on the following Goodreads lists: “Best Feminist Fiction”, and “Australian Speculative Fiction”.

Find “The Natural Way of Things” at your library using WorldCat!

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