The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood

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My starting point for this post is a review of Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things by Lisa at ANZLitLovers (here) a couple of weeks ago where three things caught my attention. Firstly, as she writes, there have been a lot of nice things said about this book over the past few months – and of course it has now been short-listed for the 2016 Stella. I had it in the to-buy list on my desk jotter for a while and without going back to look, I think it must have appeared in a number of bloggers’ must-reads at the end of 2015.

Then, Lisa describes TNWoT as dystopic. I’ve been reading SF all my adult life, my family bonds around SF, and post-apocalyptic and then dystopian have been mainstream sub-genres since the 60s. But the point which really caught my attention was when Lisa described this book as a novel about male violence against women. As an ex-husband and father who often gets his own way, that is something to which I pay a lot of attention.

In the way of these things, TNWoT had by the time of Lisa’s review moved from the to-buy list to on the shelf for the waiting-to-be-reads – there’s a few of those! All I had to do was finish the post I was working on and start reading. And enjoying.

So, this is a fine book, deserving of the praise that has been heaped on it, and I’m only sorry it has such a pretty cover. Dystopian fiction is the natural home of young men and TNWoT is a book which young men should be reading, and if only it had a cover with blood and barbed wire and so forth on it, they might be. In the Comments after Lisa’s review, TNWoT is disparaged as ‘didactic’. This might be true for educated feminists for whom the message is old, but it wasn’t for me, and would be even less so for young men.

One last Lisa-ism, TNWoT is one of those books which to discuss is to give away its secrets. I agree, but I am proposing to ‘discuss’, though without, I hope, giving away the ending, so this is your last chance to slip away and read it first.

As we start, the prose is wooden, we try to get into it, worse, we feel the author trying to get into it, to get it flowing. But then, a certain flatness is appropriate to dystopian fiction. And, do you notice too, with any good book, you start, you feel yourself reading, and then an hour, or a week, later you open your eyes again, take in the world, realise that you have been ‘in’ the book, the book has been read, and you have been completely unconscious of the text. And so it was, for me, with TNWoT.

This is the story of women, two women in particular, Verla and Yolanda, through whose eyes the action is described, who find themselves arrested/kidnapped, imprisoned and transported to a remote and derelict station whose boundary is an impenetrable electric fence. Their gaolers, two young men, the violent Bonce and the drop-out Teddy, and their ineffectual nurse/sidekick, Nancy.

It gradually becomes clear to the women that the ‘crime’ for which they have been detained, their heads shorn, their clothes replaced with ill-fitting canvas tunics, their crime has been to be attractive to men, and to complain.

Verla – lover of her boss, a married politician

Yolanda – pack raped by her boyfriend’s football team mates

Hetty – petted on the knee of an archbishop

Lydia – drugged and raped on a cruise liner

and so on …

… they are the minister’s-little-travel-tramp and that Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.

The women are marched linked together like convicts. We think of Kosovo, of the women there raped, imprisoned, murdered by Serbian troops. We think of the women our own government detains behind electrified barb wire for being brown, poor and muslim. And as the conditions of their detainment deteriorate, as it becomes obvious the gaolers too have been abandoned, we think, maybe, of Lord of the Flies. Yet, strangely, Verla, still, manages to think of ‘love’, of the volume of Walt Whitman with which Andrew, her boss, her lover wooed her –

You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me. She trudges over the grass, feels the working bones of her own narrow feet in the cold leather boots. And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart. The currawongs dropping their silvery notes. Verla feels the old slow heat rising in her with the recitation. That ‘stript’.

These might be, for Verla, the last remnants of normalcy. Yolanda is already just an animal, hunting animals for food. But that is as much of the plot as I can give you. Read this marvellous book for yourselves, or better still, buy it for your sons and boyfriends.

Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2015

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