The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

Halfway through reading Charlotte Wood’s new novel, The Natural Way of Things, I felt compelled to post about it on Facebook and Twitter.

Reading The Natural Way of Things

Such is the power of this book that after I finished it, immediately I searched for someone to discuss it with. I rang a friend who had been to the book launch on Monday night, hoping she might have read it already. She was only a few chapters in, but she told me a friend of hers, after finishing it, had rolled up in a ball on the floor and wept.

I wanted to weep while reading this book. I felt like there was a lifetime of tears – behind my rage – waiting to be shed. But I didn’t cry and I think I know why.

This brilliant, beautifully written, terrible fable of our times was inspired when Wood heard about a group of girls/women who had been rounded up and drugged, and carted off to a decommissioned prison at Hay in Western New South Wales in the 1960s. Instead of setting her story back then, as Wood told Susan Wyndham in a recent interview, she decided to create a near-future dystopia. To populate her story, Wood drew from every possible sex scandal she had come across in the media, stories of women who had been depicted as in some way having “asked for it”. Among the group of ten women Wood depicts, there are figures of diverse class, ethnicities, educational backgrounds and personalities, many of whom bear similarities to actual historical figures. Some of these become fully realised characters in their own right, given life via exquisite prose.

Two such characters, Verla and Yolanda, are given points of view in the narrative. Verla is the educated former mistress of a politician who denied having “relations” with her; Yolanda is a beauty from a working-class background whose boyfriend dumped her after she was gang raped by a group of footballers. Such is Wood’s mastery of narrative that it took me a while to realise Verla’s story is told in the present tense, Yolanda’s in the past – so seamless are the transitions.

Throughout the story, Wood’s descriptive power is stunning. She describes the violence wielded by the girls’ warden, Boncer, in ironic terms as having the ease and fluidity, if not the beauty, of ballet:

[S]he didn’t see the man’s swift, balletic leap – impossibly pretty and light across the gravel – and the leather-covered baton in his hand coming whack over the side of her jaw.

A few paragraphs later, she extends the picture created with a vivid, terrible simile:

Turning his brown leather stick in his hands, its hard, lumpy stitched seams like a botched wound. Like a scar that would make worse ones. (25)

One of Wood’s techniques I particularly noted was her use of adjectives to add sound, texture, movement and atmosphere to her descriptions: “skittering footsteps”, “thickening bush”, “busy fingers” and “noisy silence” are a few examples chosen at random; while many others form powerful triplets, such as “slow, long-bodied wasps” and an ice-chest with a “hoary galvanised-metal face”.

Throughout the story Wood shows her mastery of figurative language, often drawing from domestic situations to create beautiful, fresh and deceptively simple images:

A flock of white cockatoos arrived, landing noisily down on the flat, the white line of them billowing and settling like a thrown bedsheet. (199)

A pleat of blue has opened up in the clouds. (249)

With such language, a terrible tale is wrought. The girls in the story suffer, endure, survive, collapse under pressure and revive – or not, each in their own way.

What the story didn’t do was something which from the outset I had unconsciously expected it would: depict from the inside the ultimate psychic degradation of abused women; that is, the learned helplessness and hopelessness of internalised misogyny, the self-hatred and self-abuse that leads to suicidal ideation and self-harm, that makes women believe they deserve whatever bad things happen to them. While girls with such attitudes are portrayed in the story, they remain somewhat at a distance, seen through the eyes of the point-of-view characters. Both Yolanda and Verla are far more empowered. Even the crisis Verla suffers towards the climax of the book isn’t one of self-worth or self-doubt; she and Yolanda are women whose sense of agency and ability to withstand is not seriously threatened – even as their physical survival isn’t assured. For me, there is a third, silent, untold narrative that haunts the book: the woman whose sense of self-worth doesn’t survive.

It’s that narrative, I think, that would have summoned my tears, but perhaps it’s just as well Wood didn’t write it. I might never have stopped crying.

I’d be stunned and disappointed if The Natural Way if Things isn’t shortlisted for both the Miles Franklin Award and The Stella Prize.

~

Author: Charlotte Wood
Title: The Natural Order of things
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Date: October 2015
ISBN: 9781760111236

This review forms part of my contribution to the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publisher.

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18 Comments

  1. Oh yes it’s a beautiful book Elizabeth. I’d drafted a ‘my 5 favourite books of September’ wrap up post (I write for another blogger) when I started this, so had to read it in a sitting so I could decide if it deserved a place. Needless to say, something else had to go as it well and truly deserved its spot.

    As per my desperate #argh-ridden FB conversation with you, I’m a very literal reader so I worried about what I was missing on a metaphorical level and the logic-lover in me needs to understand what happening. Although having said that – while I don’t fully understand the ending I complete accept it as it is though will continue to wonder….

    It’s most certainly a book you think A LOT about after you’ve turned the last page.

    Reply
    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Deborah, and that, like me, you thought/felt enough about it to go searching for others to discuss it with. I’d be surprised if I’m not still thinking about aspects of this book for years. (Like I do with Dog Boy and Foal’s Bread, though for completely different reasons.)

      Reply
  2. Wow what a powerful review. I’ve been intrigued by this book, but I’ve read so many angsty, angry books lately that I’m in rather desperate need of something lighter.

    Reply
    • A novel I’ve read recently but have yet to review is Hannah and Emil by Belinda Castles. That is definitely lighter, but still very moving, and I think you’d enjoy it. Having put that out there, The Natural Way of Things isn’t as heavy going as you might think from its subject matter. I think that’s due to Wood’s wonderful, wonderful writing.

      Reply
  3. Brilliant review and I agree with you about the prize predictions!

    Reply
  4. Thanks for the review, Elizabeth. I’ll have to create some time and mental space and read it.

    Reply
  5. Fantastic review. Like you, I need everyone around me to read this book so that the discussions can begin!

    Reply
  6. I finished reading this a day ago. It only came out this month in the UK, so apologies for being 9 months behind your post!

    I, too, feel the need to talk about the book and how it made me feel. I picked up on the internalised misogyny aspect as well, and it surprised me to acknowledge that I feel a certain level of self-hatred. What you say about the women in the story who display self-hatred remaining at a distance, and Yolanda and Verla being more empowered is important. I think Wood has done a positive thing in acknowledging that societal attitudes, stories in the media, negative experiences, etc, etc, create that internalisation of self-hatred, while also modelling in Yolanda and Verla a way to break out of it. For me, that’s what the ending was about. The other women are still accepting the lies in the hope that it will turn out well. Yolanda and Verla finally understand that the only way it will turn out well is if women take control of their own story. The thing that surprised me was that the women who formed a mutual support group weren’t empowered by being in that group. Only the two characters who fully separated themselves were empowered. I’m still chewing over how I feel about that.

    Reply
    • Jan, your comments are spot on. I hadn’t considered the “support group” versus “individualism” aspect: more food for thought and reason for unease. Thanks for seeking out this review and adding your take on the story. I’m thrilled for Charlotte that her novel is still creating thought-provoking conversations.

      Reply
      • [spoilers] I agree with your interpretation of the ending, Jan. The women on the bus were seduced by the idea of returning to “normal.” Verla and Yolanda have now recognised that their previous “normal” life is not a life they want. I still feel uneasy about the message that only two of the ten women seemed to recognise this and find some agency. It’s perhaps not unrealistic, but pretty depressing.
        I found the metaphor of the bags of beauty products to be a bit disappointing. Not that the idea doesn’t have a place in the novel, but it felt a bit clunky or forced… still digesting it though. (I only finished last night – need to discuss it!)
        The “bags” part was my only disappointment from TNWOT. I found it to be immensely readable, and surprisingly beautiful in its use of language, despite the horrors of the subject matter.

        Reply
        • I thought the bags worked as an indicator that, in some circumstances, our over exposure to advertising messages about who we’re supposed to be makes us behave like Pavlov’s dogs. The bags were a bell ringing, igniting in the other women a false hope that things would go back to ‘normal’. Especially the women who had been grooming each other throughout the book. I thought it was a reasonable way to end the book for those women, and a vehicle for Yolanda and Verla’s endings.

          Reply
  7. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Elizabeth.
    This is indeed a fantastic book, well-written, gripping and surprisingly beautiful given its subject matter. Definitely does need a trigger warning but I thought Wood goes just far enough in the horrors – letting the focus remain more on the misogynist attitudes than the physical results of those attitudes.
    [Spoilers ahead]
    I’m still mulling over the ending (see my reply to Jan’s comment) and keen for discussion.
    I only realised the past/present tense thing after reading reviews (I avoid all reviews prior to reading a book – way too many spoilers! Including the cover flap blurb.) I’m surprised I didn’t realise as I was reading – I think you’re right in this being a sign of the sophistication of Wood’s writing. Anyone have thoughts on the metaphor on this? Some immediate thoughts – Yolanda is written in past tense to signify her leaving her body / being separate from what’s happening. She’s distant from the events of the past and of the prison. Whereas Verla, for most of the novel, holds hope in rescue of some kind.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comments, Ella. (I saw then when you posted and couldn’t reply because of a dodgy internet connection!) It’s great to hear your views – especially as both you and Jan pick up on different issues. I have a hunch this book will be mulled over for a long time to come!

      Reply
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