It’s taken me more than two weeks to order my thoughts about Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and I’m quite sure I’m not finished. It’s a book that demands discussion and debate. It’s a book that prompts reflection. It’s a book that might make you feel angry, as well as uncomfortable. It’s a book that is beautifully written. It’s a book that will still be talked about in ten years time. It’s a bloody good book.
The story centres around two women, Verla and Yolanda, who wake from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in a broken-down property somewhere in rural Australia. There are eight other prisoners and the women soon discover what links them – in each girl’s past is a sexual scandal.
“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 pig-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.”
It’s difficult to say more about the plot without giving too much away, short of the fact that Wood explores themes of power, friendship and society’s portrayal of women and sex. Big themes, yes, but by using a small group of characters and one location, Wood focuses your attention and gives the themes a compelling context.
The story is set in a dystopian world and in doing so, Wood manages to make the narrative both remote and confronting at the same time. On one hand, you recognise a Handmaid-style-world and feel removed from such a place. But on the other, the girls’ individual stories are familiar. In fact, the stories are so familiar we may be complacent. And in The Natural Way of Things, Wood forces our complacency and a terrible future collide. It’s gripping, it’s horrifying and it feels all too possible (was it only within the last fortnight that we heard reports that grand final celebrations for a couple of AFL players allegedly included a sexual assault?).
Wood steers away from anything explicit (that would have been too easy). It’s her restraint with words that make them all the more devastating.
“They had whispered things to her while they used her body. Some made sounds, some grunted, some called her dreadful things, but worst were the ones who used sweet words, horrible sugary epithets, as they rummaged and jerked in her…”
The layers of meaning, analogies and imagery in this book are truly extraordinary. I particularly admired the use of a rural Australian setting – it played on the idea of the familiar versus the foreign and along with other symbols – the rabbits, the kangaroos, the electric fence – made for deep and thoughtful reading.
“But then more noise, and more, and all the vegetation thrashes in syncopation; all the bush leaps into shocking life, and she stands motionless, captured, as the blurring streamers of twenty, sixty, a hundred animals overtake her, hurling past. Unseeing, unstoppable, magnificent. She waits for minutes, an hour, a day after they pass, skin prickling with joyous sweat, her mouth as dry as the leaves.”
Despite the grisly subject matter, Wood’s words are a pleasure to read – heat and despair crackle off the page, as does anger and hate. But there’s also tenderness and calm and it’s in these elements that you can’t help but marvel at this book and all that it represents.
“The tin walls are heating up already, blowflies dotting against them, their arrhythmic drones making it feel even hotter than it is.”
“Outside, a single white cockatoo shrieks, closer and louder until the sound of it fills the room like murder.”
5/5 An important book and one that I hope dominates conversation for many months.
The girls survive on a diet of rabbit. I’ll take my rabbit in rillette form, thanks.