It was why they were here, she understood now. For the hatred of what came out of you, what you contained. What you are capable of. She understood because she shared it, this dull fear and hatred of her body. It had bloomed inside her all her life, purged but really growing, unstoppable, every month: this dark weed on the understanding that she was meat, was born to make meat.
Plunged, along with the women, into this nightmare world, the reader, like them, gradually finds her bearings. Like the supposed juvenile delinquents in Peyton Marshall’s novel, Goodhouse, they’re imprisoned in a perverse correctional facility run by a mysterious security company. Although the exact circumstances are never entirely spelt out, they’ve all committed similar “crimes”: a sex scandal involving a powerful man. Or perhaps their main crime is being female (p176):
What would people in their old lives be saying about these girls? Would they be called missing? … 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 these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to 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.
Gradually, the reader, along with the women, adapts to their degradation: the hard labour; the locks on the doors of the “doghouse” where they sleep; the dreadful food; the dirt. There’s consolation in the faith that this can’t go on forever: their punishment will end when Hastings drives through the outback to open the gate in the fence. Until their two hapless guards receive the news that Hastings isn’t coming and they, along with the young woman playing at being a nurse, are prisoners too.
With more freedom to come and go, at least during the day, the women co-operate around the task of survival. As the stocks of food run out, one learns to trap rabbits, another to skin them while a third tends to the temperamental stove and a fourth keeps the pot boiling. But this is no hippy commune. Gradually they become more feral until Yolanda in particular feels closer to the rabbits she traps than to her fellow captives.
The Natural Way of Things, with its focus on adaptation to horrific reality, reminds me of one of my favourite novels, Ann Patchet’s Bel Canto, about a hostage situation. But I think this goes deeper, asking not only what’s lost in such adjustment but whether the extreme situation holds up a mirror to the real world, exposing the dreadfulness that’s always been there, but we can’t bear to see. Perhaps it’s only in fiction, and in extreme versions of feminism, that we can confront, as the character Verla does, the extent of misogyny (p282):
that true naked self she had unwrapped and offered up, the self she had thought so particular, so vividly unlike any other was not … seen. Andrew was not seeking her now, because he never did. In his every moment with her, his every act, it was his own self he saw and coldly worshipped … She was an empty space to be occupied. When she was gone he would find another. Has already done so.
Like Bel Canto, Charlotte Wood’s novel doesn’t quite follow the formula of “start with a crisis and make it gradually worse”. Instead, it starts with a shock and holds the reader in the predicament through close observation of small changes in the psychological landscape, the tension maintained through vivid description and attention to detail. It’s rather like a deep breath followed by a lengthy exhalation, with a gasp for air at the end.
I wondered about the withholding of backstory – lightly sketched rather than elaborated – and whether my own wish for more reflected the prurience of media reporting on sexual scandals. But this is a novel about circumstance rather than character or plot. The novel is related in the third person from the points of view of the two of the women: one in the present tense, the other the past, although actually contemporaneous. I don’t think I’ve seen this done before, and wondered about borrowing it for my current WIP which has three third-person point of view characters, one of whom is blind to both past and future.
Described by the publishers, Allen and Unwin, who provided my review copy as “an explosively provocative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control by one of Australia’s most acclaimed writers”, The Natural Way of Things is a disturbing, but highly readable, novel. I plucked it prematurely from my TBR shelf because my own novel, Underneath, which has just completed a lengthy blog tour also features imprisonment, although mine follows the gaze of the jailer rather than the captives.