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Charlotte Wood, The natural way of things (Review)

June 9, 2016

Charlotte Wood, The natural way of thingsWell, I wrote this week’s Monday musings on Australian dystopian fiction as a lead in to my review of Charlotte Wood’s award-winning The natural way of things, but I wasn’t expecting to get the perfect intro for my review! In the post’s comments, author and publisher Anna Blay pointed us to an article by Maria Popova in an online digest called Brain Pickings. The article, titled “The Power of Cautionary Questions: Neil Gaiman on Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ Why We Read, and How Speculative Storytelling Enlarges Our Humanity”, starts with this:

The important thing,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in contemplating the cultural role of speculative fiction and the task of its writer, “is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live.” In doing so, she argued, imaginative storytelling can intercept the inertia of oppressive institutions, perilous social mores, and other stagnations of progress that contract our scope of the possible.

I would agree that the thing is “not to offer any specific hope of betterment” but to jolt the reader into thinking about what is, what might be, if we do nothing. It’s certainly how I’d see most dystopian fiction I’ve read, including Charlotte Wood’s novel, but not being a big reader of speculative fiction I haven’t sat down before and articulated it.

So, what is it that Charlotte Wood wants to jolt our minds about? For those of you – overseas readers at least – who haven’t read or don’t know of it, the plot tells the story of 10 women plucked from their normal lives and transported to a nightmarish place in the middle of nowhere – referencing the mythology of the forbidding Australian outback? – where they are imprisoned behind an electric fence and controlled, labour-camp style, by two boorish men, bruiser Boncer and the preening Teddy. The women pass from disbelief and anger, through resignation, to a sort of acceptance and attempt to make the best of their situation. There are shades of Margaret Atwood’s The handmaid’s tale here and also, perhaps of William Golding’s Lord of the flies, but not derivatively. This is very much its own work.

But now, back to my question. Wood’s target is misogyny, and specifically the way it plays out through the scapegoating of women for their sexuality – whether for assaults that happen to them or for sexual activities they may engage in consensually (think affair with a politician or the flight attendant in a “mile-high” situation) but for which the man is let off while the woman is excoriated. Early in the novel each girl is given a “nickname” which “explains” why they are there such as “army slut”, “cabinet minister’s moll”, “airline girl”, “cruise girl” and “football girl”. You get the picture, I’m sure. The girls are also named. Wood does respect and individualise her characters, beyond just being types. There is one other woman in the picture, and that’s Nancy. She’s on the staff with Boncer and Teddy. She dresses as a rather grotesque nurse who looks after the so-called “hospital” – and represents those enabling women who often feel special but don’t realise that they too are under control.

I came to this book ready to love it. Although I’ve avoided reading reviews, I’ve not been able to help hearing all the accolades, and it sounded like a book and topic that would be right up my alley. It is, and I “enjoyed” reading it, but I’m having trouble defining and articulating my somewhat uncertain response to it. I love the heart, I love the desire to attack an issue that’s absolutely critical, I love the overall narrative concept, I was compelled to keep reading, and I thought the ending was powerful. So, why uncertain? I’ll try to tease it out a bit.

Menace?

There are a lot of characters – the ten captive women, plus Boncer, Teddy and Nancy – though Wood focuses on two young 19-year-olds in particular, Yolanda the “football girl” and Verla “the cabinet minister’s moll”. We get more into their heads. They are analytical about their situations and plan and act in ways to improve their situations. A cautious friendship develops between them. As well as being differentiated in this way from the rest of the group, they are also differentiated from each other by two facts: Yolanda wasn’t tricked like all the others into accepting the agreement that got them to this place, while Verla, who guiltily remembers “gratefully signing the fake legal papers”, believes that her “Andrew”, the cabinet-minister, still loves her. The other women are more problematic. We don’t get to know them well, but what we do see suggests that they have not cottoned on. They focus on finding ways to groom themselves, they reject Yolanda’s feral way of managing the situation, they fall on the fancy handbags at the end and willingly follow the new man who appears. They seem to have learnt little. But, perhaps that’s also the point. They have a right to be the young women they are. See, I’m talking myself into understanding this as I go …

And then there’s the men. They are scary, certainly, and brutal, particularly in the beginning:

So she didn’t see the man’s swift, balletic leap – impossibly pretty and light across the gravel – and a leather covered baton in his hand coming whack over the side of her jaw …

The man Boncer cast an aggrieved look at them, is if they were to blame for the stick in his hand …

But pretty soon we see that they, too, are, in a way, victims of the system. They’ve been fooled it seems into being there, on promises of bonuses, and are ultimately pathetic. I certainly don’t want to excuse them – they’ve made choices. However, as the supporting system seems to fail, they start to rely on the women’s ability to keep the show going. The women realise that these men don’t know what’s happening any more either. There’s an uneasy tension between captors and captives – and with that cracks start to show in the menace, albeit some menace remains.

Natural?

The writing is good. There’s even humour, such as tempeh-loving, yoga-doing but clueless Teddy. The novel is structured by the seasons, starting in Summer, moving through Autumn and ending, appropriately, in Winter. The story is told third person, mostly focusing on Yolanda and Verla. They’re engaging, though they are also pretty slippery to fully grasp. There’s a distance that we never quite penetrate. We “see” Yolanda’s strength and Verla’s self-deception, but we don’t, I think, see “into” them.

Wood uses effective recurrent imagery or motifs, particularly smells, rabbits, horses and birds. The opening line is “So there were kookaburras here”, suggesting some sort of normality. In her interview with Annette Marfording long before this book was written, Wood discusses using kites and kite-flying to suggest “flight and escape”, and then she says “I realise I have a lot of birds”, which I assumed implies that they too suggest “flight and escape”. In The natural way of things, birds also suggest the related idea of “freedom”, but when hawks appear, we see another side, that of predator and prey. All relevant to the book.

Then there’s the irony in the title, “the natural way of things”, because there’s nothing “natural” about what the book describes. The title appears in the text once in a paragraph that occupies its own page. It’s powerful:

What would people in their old lives be saying about these girls? Would they be called missing? Would some documentary program on the ABC that nobody watched , or one of those thin newspapers nobody read, somehow connect the thread to make them a story? The Lost Girls they would be called. Would it be said, they ‘disappeared’, ‘were lost? Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of all these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it do themselves. They lured abduction and abandonment to themselves, they marshalled themselves into this prison where they had made their beds, and now, once more, were lying in them.

The “natural” way of things! Referring back to Ursula le Guin, I’d say that Wood has presented here a “persuasive alternative reality”. Indeed, it’s not far removed from Wood’s inspiration: the Hay Institution for Girls to which “problem” teenage girls were sent in the 1960s and 1970s, and treated with great cruelty. But, who or what is the enemy? Looking at Le Guin again, this would be “perilous social mores” (and those who uphold them) – the fact that the scapegoating of women is still “allowed” to happen. There’s (a little) more awareness now, but this behaviour is not stopping, not by a long shot. All of us, I’m sure, recognise the recent inspirations for Wood’s “girls”. Anna Krein’s Night games (my review) makes an interesting companion read.

So, where do we go from here? Dystopian novels don’t have to give answers, indeed they rarely do, they “simply” shine the light. The light Wood has shone is, though, a very complex one indeed. I think I’ll be reading this one again when my reading group does it in July.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has also read it and has posted her comments plus links to other reviews.

awwchallenge2016Charlotte Wood
The natural way of things
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2015
315pp.
ISBN: 9781760111236

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34 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2016 2:47 pm

    Help me, WG. There was a movie in the 70s, in the first flush of the resurgent Australian film industry, in which a bunch of women – in a colonial setting I think – either escaped or were captured. It wasn’t a very good movie as I remember but it seemed to have a similar theme. Can you recall it? I think it even had something like A Band of Women as a title. That wasn’t it, but it was something like that.

    • June 9, 2016 3:00 pm

      Good memory, Sara. I think it was Journey among women? I remembered the title but not the content. I googled it and it sounds like what you’re remembering. Only about 6/10 on IMDb – not that IMDb’s a perfect indicator but it accords with your recollection?

      • June 10, 2016 9:51 am

        Yes – you’re right! Journey Among Women. Is it possible that someone Woods’s age could have had that imprinted on her unconscious? I do believe that we are influenced more than we know by these sorts of things.

        • June 10, 2016 11:36 am

          Good question, Sara. She would have been 12 when it was released – a significant time it one’s life for taking things in. I’m sure you’re right about things seeping into our subconscious and becoming “us” often without our being fully aware of it.

  2. June 9, 2016 5:54 pm

    I enjoyed your thoughtful review Sue. I’m still not sure if I will read this one though.

    • June 9, 2016 10:42 pm

      Thanks Brona. I’d be interested to know why not?

      • June 11, 2016 12:46 pm

        The bits I’ve heard about this book, with the feminist issues & how Wood wrote this ‘angry’, make me hesitate because I know how enraged & personal I can feel about these issues & I’m trying to find more peaceful states of mind right now. Deliberately introducing angst into my life is not something I’m choosing right now, no matter how good the writing. Hopefully this is just a phase 🙂

        • June 11, 2016 1:45 pm

          Oh fair enough Brona. I think it’s very important as a reader to take care first of one’s own mental or emotional health. I know I’ve read books that have been such mood downers and it’s not fun. It doesn’t seem to happen as much lately which may mean I’m becoming more cold-hearted! Or, perhaps just more cynical about the ways of the world. I’m a realistic optimist – I always hope for the best but am never surprised and, rightly or wrongly, rarely thrown, when it doesn’t happen!

        • June 11, 2016 2:25 pm

          I would usually say the same about myself, but peri menopause has got me in touch with an inner rage that is rather out of character! At least I hope that’s what it is.

        • June 11, 2016 5:20 pm

          Oh it could be, Brona … I was certainly edgy and jumpy for those few years though physically I had a reasonably easy time of it.

  3. sharkell permalink
    June 9, 2016 8:56 pm

    I had a pretty mixed reaction to this book. I found it challenging to read and it’s certainly not a book you enjoy but it did make me think! I wondered about the handbag scene – maybe they were so starved of any kind of beauty or creature comforts they couldn’t help their reactions???

    • June 9, 2016 10:54 pm

      Thanks Sharkell. It’s an interesting book to respond to. I was challenged by this review and there were things that I was uncertain about. But I didn’t really find the handbags surprising given the majority of the girls involved. They’d continued to focus on girly things throughout when they had the opportunity, so why wouldn’t they leap on the handbags? Have I missed something?

      • sharkell permalink
        June 10, 2016 12:13 pm

        I don’t know – I certainly missed things within the books that I have subsequently picked up from reading reviews and people’s comments. They had been starved and neglected and imprisoned for so long I thought they would have been more focused on food and freedom than material items. It seems to paint the girls as shallow and unthinking and unconcerned for their future which surprised me.

        • June 10, 2016 2:15 pm

          You’re not the only one sharkell to think this, as you probably know. I just think it’s realistic. I think some people – like Yolanda and Verla – had thought things through whereas the others were still clinging to faith in their old lives. They had also been deprived for so long – and most hadn’t been proactive in that time (again like Yolanda with her rabbits, and Verla with her mushrooms) – that they leapt upon something that represented normality to them. I think it would have been more unreal if they had all reacted like Yolanda? Hope springs eternal, and all that?!

  4. June 10, 2016 4:02 am

    This sounds like a really interesting book. What is the premise given for the 10 women being “taken” and is this a widespread thing or a local happening?

    • June 10, 2016 8:00 am

      Good questions Stefanie. the details are actually left vague. We only know about this group. The premise too is not fully fleshed out. All we know is that they are girls who have been involved in some sexual situation and are blamed for it. They are talked/tricked into signing some agreement which enables them to be taken away.

      • June 10, 2016 11:38 pm

        Hmm, I think that vagueness might annoy me a tad.

        • June 10, 2016 11:48 pm

          Hmmm … tricky, Stefanie. I’d love to see what you thought. It’s vague, in that a lot isn’t spelt out, and yet not vague, in that anyone who’s been around, listened to the news can work out why they were taken. The details of HOW they are taken is not provided in any depth. If it’s published there you should look at it – it’s dystopian after all!

        • June 14, 2016 12:57 am

          It looks like Europa might be publishing it at the end of June. I will keep and eye out for it and hopefully a local library will have a copy.

        • June 14, 2016 8:01 am

          Oh good to hear, Stefanie. Is Europa a small publisher?

  5. Annette Marfording permalink
    June 10, 2016 8:47 am

    In case anyone is interested, I’ve pasted my review of the novel in below. And in case anybody is interested in my book of interviews Celebrating Australian Writing, you can find a free sample chapter (my interview with Robert Drewe) on my website: http://www.annettemarfording.com/
    Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things
    The Natural Way of Things is Charlotte Wood’s fifth novel. Unlike her previous novels, it is propelled by the author’s anger; anger at the treatment of women who have gone public about sexual misconduct perpetrated on them by men. Women such as the army cadet secretly filmed while having sex with another cadet who then shared the video online; Diane Brimble, drugged and assaulted on a cruise ship with the group of perpetrators then vilifying and making fun of her online; the woman who was sexually harassed by a senior executive at David Jones.
    This is an important issue which deserves attention and responses such as Charlotte Wood’s in this novel.
    Ten such women have been drugged and kidnapped, taken to an isolated former station in the outback that is ringed by a powerful electric fence, their every move controlled by two men who subject them to beatings and the constant threat of rape. The “girls” have their heads shaved and are made to wear shapeless tunics made from hessian sacks. Shackled together, they are made to do backbreaking labour, building a road. The author focuses on the responses of two women, Yolanda and Verla, to their fate, and on the two men who are there to control them, this control meant to be represent the essence of what men want over women.
    Wood writes beautifully about the natural environment which the women find themselves in, the local animals and the food they produce. As in her previous novels, her use of vivid imagery and symbols is outstanding.
    The Natural Way of Things has received formidable acclaim by other authors and critics. None of her previous novels or indeed any other authors’ novels in recent memory have found such universal praise. It was even discussed in this month’s ABC Book Club, where discussion of Australian novels is a rare event indeed. It is also on the shortlist of 53 for the Book Club’s best novel of 2015.
    This response, however, was not explicitly linked to the author’s beautiful language, and on its own, the lyricism employed by Wood would be unlikely to garner such a degree of acclaim. But it is possibly related to the desire, a desire that I certainly have, to have authors tackle such important themes in politics and society. And that is something I definitely admire Charlotte Wood for having done. Nevertheless, for me, even though I admired her previous novels, this novel doesn’t quite work for several reasons.
    1. Even though I generally enjoy novels which withhold information and make the reader work, in this novel addressing such an important topic, I think too much information is withheld. Many readers will find it difficult to tease out what had happened to all the girls taken to the farm, since references to their past experiences are oblique, and that is the case even for the major theme in this novel. Without reading any of the reviews of this novel or media interviews the author has given, some readers may not even pick up the theme of and the author’s intention behind this novel.
    2. With the exception of the two main girls, the girls imprisoned with them appear as a formless ‘blob’ without individual personailities or any form of characterisation. Sadly, the author said in her talk at Gleebooks in October that she didn’t have the energy left to create backstory for each of the girls, and the novel would have been better if she had.
    3. For a long stretch of the novel I found it difficult to distinguish between the two main girls, Yolanda and Verla, again because there was a lack of complexity in Wood’s characterisation.
    4. Both of the men lack complexity, too, and appear somewhat stereotypical; one as the brutaliser and the other as hippie, weed smoking yoga practitioner, whose presence is so unlikely that it would have warranted some explanation.
    5. In my mind, the novel unwittingly expresses some of the same degradation of women that the author wanted to protest about. Not only do the girls get ridiculously excited about bags of beauty products they come across towards the end of the novel, but throughout the novel they seem preoccupied with their looks, their inability to shave their bodies, to cut their hair, to wear beautiful clothes, and one to “mother” a big doll made for her by the others that this superficiality of those other than Yolanda and Verla not only stereotypes them, but worse, condemns them I would imagine in the eyes of at least some men – and women – reading this novel, and this is the very opposite of the author’s intention.
    I wish Charlotte Wood’s publisher had put her foot down on these issues and asked the author to have another objective look at her novel, because if the author had had such a look, she would have seen these flaws and addressed them. Apparently her American publisher did request changes, but the author refused. If only she had not, then Australian literature would have been truly enriched by a great novel on such an important theme.

    • June 10, 2016 11:30 am

      Thanks for this Annette. I’m so glad you’ve shared your response. I understand your concerns, because while I found it a good book to read, my uncertain reaction at the end surprised me a little. The lack of backstories wasn’t a huge problem for me though one of the AWW challenge reviewers said she thought it should have been longer – more backstory – or shorter. I can see what she meant/what you mean.

      I really didn’t mind the beauty/handbags issue – I’ve seen others raise it too – because I think that would have been the reality. The scary thing in my mind is that so many women do buy into all this stuff, and many of the “girls” really hadn’t put it all together the way Yolanda and Verla did. To me it was perfectly believable that some just didn’t get it. I didn’t find it hard to distinguish between Yolanda and Verla. I found them very clear from the start – Yolanda was proactive from the beginning when she said she’d go first, and Verla so reserved and sure that she was different for so long.

      One of the intriguing things for me was making Boncer and Teddy victims in a way too. It made “the enemy” a bit more nebulous. I think it’s a very intellectual book i.e. she doesn’t spell a lot out. You have to understand the “perilous social mores”, the complexity of them, that result in the way women are treated. And it is possibly this which disconcerted me. In The handmaid’s tale the “enemy” is clearly “fundamentalist right” thinking, but here the “enemy” is far more intricately woven into the fabric of our society. She shows the horror, but where do we start?

      I’d love to know what changes the American publishers wanted.

  6. June 10, 2016 1:18 pm

    Addressing Annette’s comments. I haven’t read the book but hope to, once I get through the pile beside the bed. But at the moment I’m reading the award-winning biography of Max Perkins that first came out in 1978. For those who don’t recognise the name, Perkins was the editor at Scribner’s who fostered the work of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. We just don’t have that kind of publishing anymore, or editors who can take the time that Perkins did to bring out the best in their authors and support them through tough times. What a loss it is to writers. The book has been re-released in paperback and I couldn’t resist buying it. My only disappointment is that Perkins didn’t think much of my favourite, John Dos Passos. But he’s forgiven. A fascinating book. Read it if you can.

    • June 10, 2016 2:17 pm

      Ah yes, thanks Sara, that issue of loyalty to and development of a publisher author relationship comes up quite a bit – and for me most recently at the 10th anniversary of Finlay Lloyd event. I can understand your wanting to read such a book.

  7. June 10, 2016 2:25 pm

    I read this one full of hope and excitement and found that it just didn’t capture me at all. I could barely bother to finish it. And me a strident feminist! Too didactic, too heavy handed, and characters that failed to engage me. Good luck to Charlotte Woods, though, and all power to her for addressing such important issues.

    • June 10, 2016 5:11 pm

      What a shame Michelle. Those are interesting comments. I think I get where you are coming from though I don’t think I found it any more didactic than other dystopian novels. In fact, in a way, by making Boncer and Teddy also “victims”, I felt she reduced the didacticism if anything.

      But engagement with the characters, I understand a little more. I was intellectually interested in them and felt compelled to keep reading but when I wrote this review I found myself actively avoiding using the term engagement. Wood said on Radio National that she realised she wrote it out of anger but it ended up being more a “head” read for me than a “heart” one.

      I think my reading group discussion is going to be interesting. I might end up reporting it here – if I feel inspired.

  8. June 11, 2016 2:28 pm

    I think that the ‘flaws’ Annette mentions above are not flaws at all. That they were deliberate and well-thought out (and yes, we don’t know what changes the US editor asked for, would be interesting to know). To me it’s clear the book is meant as allegory; the women represent women, yes, and the men (and the nurse) represent men and men’s interests/society – the controlling forces that want to manage female sexuality. I took the whole thing as a comment about gender, and how the social mores you refer to Sue are limiting for people of all gender identifications, but in terms of who loses most, it’s women and girls. Always has been, probably always will, which is the ‘natural way of things.’ Not saying it’s right or just or I think that’s okay, it just is or seems to be. I believed the book was not to be read literally, I think it’s possible that the flatness of the characters, and even Yolanda and Verla, was also deliberate, to contribute to the deadened, hopeless effect. (I don’t have a problem with so-called flat characters, in fact I like them. I don’t like to be told everything about a character.) The unidentified, faceless enemy of which the guards and nurse were agents (they were as used by ‘the system’ as the girls, and became as weirdly resigned and passive when abandoned) to me represented the great social machine that creates the rules and enforces them, almost invisibly or without people really being aware of it, or challenging it. The ending was perfect. No, not satisfying in that information was withheld, but not meant to be. That would have been a cop-out, and the falling upon the makeup and sample bags etc was also showing ‘the natural way of things’ – how things don’t change, people are predictable, people are living their lives asleep, plus ça change and so on. For me, it’s a brilliant book, and it’s great to see a novel tackling large themes that aren’t domestic. I would have liked to have some hope in the ending, and I’m not sure there is any there. But that is perfect in its way – it’s as if there is no hope when it comes to the ‘gender war’. (Disclosure: Charlotte and I share the same publisher and editor.) (Second disclosure: I didn’t write a response to this book for my blog even though I read it ages ago. I’ve been cogitating and have only realised now, in writing this comment, that these are my thought about the book and how marvellous a book it is. Before now I’d been unsure about it too. Perhaps another brilliant and deliberate attempt to unsettle the reader as we sometimes need to be.)

    • June 11, 2016 5:31 pm

      Wow, there’s a great conversation going on here. Thanks everyone – and thanks Jenny for weighing in. I agree that the ending was perfect – and I felt there was a glimmer of hope though it depends on exactly what does happen to Yolanda and Verla.

      When I finished the book I felt curiously flat having enjoyed the read, and started writing my post more strongly along those lines. But then I started flicking through the book – at my copious marginalia (they are very helpful for checking a book through again) – and I couldn’t find anything that I really didn’t like, that I could point to to explain my feeling. My reading group is going to do this in July and I hadn’t planned to read it again but I’m now thinking I will, and that I will like it more than less. I will notice more, for example, all the imagery and how that fits in.

      I’d read references to its being an allegory and I found it hard to see it that way – it feels somehow too close to real to be allegorical but your explanation is excellent.

      • ian darling permalink
        June 13, 2016 7:07 pm

        I certainly think that this is a timely novel as misogyny is on the rise as perhaps the nastiest aspect of a whole range of backlash politics. I must try to read the novel itself to explore it as to your response and Jenny Ackland’s.

        • June 13, 2016 7:31 pm

          I’d love to hear what you thought Ian. It’s a clever novel – and interesting, as you are reading, to think about about the choices she made and why.

  9. October 1, 2016 4:03 pm

    I’m glad to read your sense of this book. I ‘ve just finished it and – maybe this is tempered by the high expectations – I didn’t love it. It was good, the concepts were great, it was easy to read and there were parts that grabbed me, but I feel like there was something missing for me. The writing, perhaps, I think I like writing that grabs at my heart, rather than being a bit simplistic, though of course this could be deliberate? Perhaps it’s what you say, that we never see “into” the characters? I think I’d’ve liked to see more depths in the characters and less focus on gruesomeness? But it’s definitely still a great novel and the concept and “jarring-ness” is super valuable. I’m just trying to figure out why I didn’t really fall for it the way others have!

    • October 1, 2016 5:03 pm

      Thanks Hannah. Yes, me too. I finished it with a question mark in my mind, but three months later it is still fairly fresh in my mind which is more than some books achieve, so it has power. I did find this post a challenge to write.

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