Charlotte Wood has recently won the Stella Prize for her novel The Natural Way of Things, so I thought it was timely that I provide my review of this award winner. I recently saw Charlotte discussing this book at Adelaide Writers’ Week and I immediately put it on hold at my local library as it sounded like something I would very much enjoy.
The general story is about a group of girls who are imprisoned somewhere in the Australian outback because, we quickly discover, they have all been involved in some very public sexual scandal with a powerful man. The conditions the girls are kept in are awful; they are given old fashioned uniforms, their hair is cut, they are forced to work all day, and then they are locked into kennels at the end of the day, filthy and exhausted. Their jailers are two young men – one cruel and one who seems milder – and a woman who seems desperate to fit in with these men.
Although set in the current day, the setting reminded me a bit of those homes for girls they used to send pregnant single young women to back in the day. The similarity between sending those girls away to some hidden location where they couldn’t be seen by ‘civil’ society and Charlotte’s story seemed strong in some parts.
The story is essentially one of power. Men have an extraordinary amount of power over these young girls’ lives. They are the ones who sent them away; they are the ones who’ve imprisoned them. The girls seem powerless and it is a tough read at times. There are some moments of hope, particularly with the two main characters, but in my view those moments are quickly dashed.
I heard an interview with Charlotte on the radio recently after she won the Stella Prize where she mentioned that the novel, although quite hard going in parts, ends with some hope and lightness. I respectfully disagree.
The following contains spoilers, for which I apologise, but I struggled to express my views on this book in full without explaining why I only thought it was average. If you don’t want any spoilers, please do not read any further into this review.
As everyone in the camp realises they’ve been forgotten by society and the overarching company in charge, the jailers start to despair. They, also, are caged and, with everyone running out of food and other supplies, order starts to slip. Power again comes into play as threats of rape and assault from one of the jailers grows. So the girls decide one of the girls should be made as an offering to this man, to settle things down. And the girl does it and, despite her initial loathing of the idea, ends up doing it for nothing more than superficial items. This really rubbed me the wrong way, because the girls essentially chose the one girl no one really connected with, and bullied her into doing it. They could have fought their jailers as a collective, the girl who was being threatened could definitely have kept him away from her (as she already had done so before), and they could have done any number of things. This decision was not courageous, it was not a win and it did not sit well with me.
And then the end of the book *sigh*… Someone finally comes, with a bus and luxury items for the girls, who all (aside from one, who instead has gone feral and is running in the wild. Oh, side note, if I have to read another sentence about how this character is becoming more like a rabbit I will go crazy myself) get on the bus and are happily driven away but, we find, they’re not being driven out of this hell, but further in. One of the girls figures this out and gets off the bus, but the rest are driven off into God knows where to face God knows what. And the two that aren’t on the bus anymore? Oh, great, one of them has clearly lost her mind and now they’re both stuck in the middle of nowhere with no supplies and, seemingly, no one giving a damn. How is any of this a hopeful ending, Charlotte?! It’s a horrible ending to what has already been an emotional ordeal to read.
And maybe the contemporary timeline didn’t work for me. Why would our current society punish women who were involved in some sexual scandal in such an institutionalised way? None of the women, from what I could gather, did anything illegal, and in fact in at least one of the cases the woman had been gang-raped so wasn’t the instigator of the scandal at all. Without any other context given regarding any ‘alternate’ contemporary timeline, this just didn’t work for me.
It may sound as though I hated the book, but I assure you I didn’t. It was definitely emotionally draining, but I wanted to keep reading, and spent many a night staying up way too late doing so. I guess the rub with me was that after all that investment there was no payoff. These characters I cared about just went nuts and/or just kept facing more crap with no light or hope to be seen. And because of that, I couldn’t love this book. It was a bit disappointing, but not awful.
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood: 3 out of 5 stars.