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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Australian Women Writers Challenge makes the HuffPo

What a day to be out of town!

Some time ago on Twitter, I saw that @HuffPostBooks was trying to get more followers to reach 55,555. I tweeted a reply from my @auswomenwriters account saying I’d follow – if they’d consider posting more pieces on books by Australian women.

The next thing I knew, I had a Twitter invitation from the HuffPo Books blog editor to write something for their blog about Australian women writers. I immediately deflected attention to both Sophie Cunningham and Kirsten Tranter, saying either of them might be interested. When neither of those authors responded to the tweet, I took a deep breath. Maybe I could write something?

After consulting the AWW team of book bloggers and exchanging emails with the editor over the angle I should take, I chose the obvious one: the news that the inaugural Stella Prize would be awarded next April. I decided to link the news with a survey of books published this year which have been reviewed for the AWW challenge, since these books – in theory – should be eligible for the prize. They cover a wide variety of genres that don’t normally get reviewed in literary pages, and include titles which, because of either their setting or subject matter, wouldn’t be eligible for the Miles Franklin. I wrote the piece and sent it off.

Then yesterday morning I received word that my piece had been posted. I took a look, and the first thing I noticed was a formatting error. (Most book titles were italicised; some weren’t.) Isn’t that always the way? I had to remind myself that I’d asked another book blogger to look over a draft copy of the article and she didn’t notice. How important are italics anyway?

I tweeted the link to everyone I could think of and posted it on Facebook, then felt a wave of nerves as I waited for the response. Is what I’ve written crap? It’s just a survey. There’s no substance. Bla, bla, bla. The committee of critics in my head started chattering.

Maybe fortuitously, I was up in Katoomba, getting ready to go bush walking with guests from the UK. We piled in the car and travelled the 18 km dirt road out to the ancient Grose Valley escarpment at Mount Hay. A sea haze had drifted in from the coast over the Cumberland Plains, obscuring the sun and sharpening the definition of the hills in a way I’d never seen at this time of year. Many tiny wildflowers were in bloom, as well as Flannel Flowers, my bush favourites. For a few hours, I forgot about books and writing.

When I got back to town last night and a proper internet connection, however, the first thing I did was to run through email, Twitter and Facebook. There were dozens of comments in response to the HuffPo piece – too many to reply to personally – and lots of notifications that people had retweeted the link. It didn’t really matter what I’d written. The important thing was that Huffington Post Books blog had given a great big shout to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and The Stella Prize, as well as to dozens of books published this year by a host of talented Australian women.

This morning, I received an email query from the HuffPo Books blog editor about a possible correction to my piece – is Bitter Greens Kate Forsyth’s first novel written for an adult audience, or were her earlier books, The Witches of Eilaenan and Ride of Rhiannon series, also for adults? I’d read the Witches series years ago, and thought it was for Young Adults, but I checked with Kate. They are for adults, she told me; but she wasn’t worried – she was just happy to be included in the piece. (The error has been corrected, though.)

I emailed the editor back with a clarification – and cheekily asked if I might be able to write a follow-up post on The Stella Prize longlist or even the occasional author interview or review. The answer came back in the form of information about logging in as a contributor and the message, “Looking forward to reading future posts!”

That’s it! I’m now a HuffPo book blogger.

You can read yesterday’s Huffington Post piece – “Want a book by an Aussie woman in Australia? Try looking for a kangaroo on the spine” – here.

This is where we were yesterday.

Women Writers in a Man’s World: A reply to Tara Moss

The following post was written in October 2011 and intended as a reply to a post by Tara Moss, “Are our Sisters in Crime (still) fighting against a male literary world?” It was lost when I transferred from Blogger. The response to this post was overwhelming – mostly because Tara provided a link to it on her blog – and it led directly to the creation of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge. Because three years later, the challenge is still going strong, I’m republishing the original post here. I’ve tried to back-date this entry to reflect the original date of publication, but I don’t know if that will work – Elizabeth Lhuede, August 2014.

Thanks Tara for your blog entry and for allowing this thread to develop. As Bernadette writes, “not bad for a humble blog post”. And I agree with Kate Forster: I’m sorry this argument still needs to be had.

I’d like to take up the crucial point that Kerryn Goldsworthy has raised, that “most women share the values of the dominant culture”, “values most people wrongly think are universal and gender-neutral”. That certainly was true for me. It’s worth considering how much women readers unconsciously contribute to the marginalisation of women writers, how this unconscious bias arises and what can be done to change it.

It took me years to realise that I had been educated to privilege men’s writing over women’s. Like a lot of girls educated in the seventies and eighties, I grew up reading a canon of “great literature” written by men (and, primarily, for men). At school we read almost exclusively male writers, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, Dickens, Sophocles, Patrick White, Kenneth Slessor, AD Hope, Bruce Dawe and Ray Lawler. Our one woman author was Jane Austen (three different novels read in different years).

At uni, the trend continued, though the number of women authors studied expanded to include Mary Shelley, the Brontes and Emily Dickinson, as well as modernists such as Djuna Barnes and HD. Most of my tutors were male, and most championed such “great” literary critics as FR Leavis and Northrope Frye, and later Barthes, Derrida and Raymond Williams. Without realising it, I was being educated into the view that “good” writing focused on something other than (what were then primarily) women’s interests and concerns – relationships, domesticity and “feelings”. Such subject matter was regarded as trivial, ephemeral – even sentimental (like the worst of poet Percy Shelley and Dickens). While it was obvious that literary fashions and tastes changed over time, “good” literature could combine adventure, history, politics, spirituality, ironic views of the court and society, nature… When women writers wrote of those realms and did it well (or happened to be Jane Austen), they were included in the canon. The exclusion of the majority of women authors wasn’t deliberate, I was told. It was just a matter of “quality”: no women wrote as well as men, wasn’t it obvious?

This not-so-subtle indoctrination wasn’t restricted to our appreciation of the great “classics” of literature, produced in an age when women weren’t as educated as men: it was at work in the formation of contemporary literary canons. My chosen area of study was Australian poetry, but it took most of my PhD for me to realise that my choice of subject matter (the “new Australian poetry” of the 60s, 70s and 80s) was predicated on the values I’d absorbed through my male-dominated (in every sense) education. And, guess what? The majority of poets whose work I “chose” to study were men.

Yes, I’m privileged – I’m lucky to have had an education: but what kind of education was it? I had been educated to the point that I was unconsciously reproducing in my own reading and studying habits a gender bias which meant that I was actively contributing to marginalising talented women poets of that time. These poets’ work was actively being written out of what was considered “worthy” or “valuable” in terms of literary history by male editors of anthologies which disproportionately represented men over women, editors who unashamedly made their selections based on a seemingly value-neutral notion of “quality”. (The publication of Kate Jennings’ anthology of Australian women’s poetry, Mother I’m Rooted, and later, the Penguin Anthology of Australian Women’s Writing, showed there was no shortage of poetry written by women: but the majority of this work simply wasn’t considered “good” enough to be included in the anthologies.)

As Sean has pointed out in his response, Anne Summers and others, including Jennings, were decrying this situation in the 70s. It’s 2011 and we’re still in the same debate…

So how can things change?

Today we have a pool of extremely talented and articulate Australian women who are able to identify and question their own biases, who acknowledge and decry the lack of recognition given to Australian women writers, and who are active in doing something to redress the imbalance. By repeating the statistics which so clearly demonstrate the injustice, blogs such as yours, Tara – probably intended to be ephemeral – make a welcome contribution to a much broader and ongoing cultural project. It also takes grace and courage not to be cowed by some who don’t – can’t? – know the depth and breadth of the injustices faced by many successive generations of women writers. So thank you for your example.

As for The Stella Prize, it may be that the “best” women writers will be judged according to an aesthetic which reflects the values of a dominant (presently male-dominated) culture; the prize may simply serve to make these women authors more visible, and attract for them the attention and rewards necessary to hold their own against comparative male writers, be feted and interviewed, invited to appear on festival panels, sell more books and survive. Or it may be that an alternative aesthetic will gradually develop as we turn our attention to what we judge as “great” in women’s writing, an aesthetic which might better reflect the breadth and diversity of Australian women’s lived experiences, cultures and values.

Whatever happens, it will happen because women readers, critics, reviewers and writers take each other’s work seriously, and treat each other with the respect owed to professionals. It will also be because we continue to develop and question the basis of our own tastes and preferences, as well as actively seek out writing by women which we can champion and enjoy. If some male reviewers, critics, judges and readers also find something of value in such works, great. If they don’t, who cares?

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