“Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in a broken-down property in the middle of nowhere. Strangers to each other, they have no idea where they are or how they came to be there with eight other girls, forced to wear strange uniforms, their heads shaved, guarded by two inept yet vicious armed jailers and a ‘nurse’. The girls all have something in common, but what is it? What crime has brought them here from the city? Who is the mysterious security company responsible for this desolate place with its brutal rules, its total isolation from the contemporary world? Doing hard labour under a sweltering sun, the prisoners soon learn what links them: in each girl’s past is a sexual scandal with a powerful man. They pray for rescue — but when the food starts running out it becomes clear that the jailers have also become the jailed. The girls can only rescue themselves.” (Allen and Unwin)
The Natural Way of Things is as far from a comfortable read as you can possibly get. Hidden behind the pretty pink and floral cover is a book that is both brutally confronting and disturbing in the truth of it. It is starkly written and to the point; there is no sugarcoating of reality; and really there’s no escaping it once you’ve read it because it’ll stick with you.
Charlotte Wood has ripped the pasts of the women in this novel straight from the headlines. One woman gang-raped by a football team, another raped on a cruise ship; yet another is the victim of unwanted advances from her swimming coach, while a fourth is embroiled in a scandal with a married politician. The list goes on. All of them have suffered in different situations, but the one constant is that they have all had the blame placed on them. It is for this reason that they find themselves taken from their homes and left in the middle of nowhere.
We’ve seen the stories of these women. We’ve also seen the stories and comments that generally follow, including statements such as, “she shouldn’t have been out so late on her own”; “she should have covered herself up more”; “she shouldn’t have been drinking so much”; and “she shouldn’t have put herself in that situation”.
It’s this treatment of women in the media and a conditioning of society that is under the microscope in Wood’s novel. The dynamic between women and men is on display, raising a further question: if it’s both genders that have had a role in these events, why is that the female victim has some of the blame placed on her. Why shouldn’t women be able to go where they want, when they want, and do what they want without it being dangerous or a perceived invitation? Power is examined, and even when there is a shift in power I questioned whether it was as much as what some might perceive – just because someone becomes reliant on you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that their power has diminished; rather, it has changed.
But don’t think Wood paints these women as pure and innocent creatures. The women in this novel have all seen each other in the news reports, all judged each other. Even in the latter half of the novel, after going through so much together, they continue to judge and blame in order to make themselves feel better:
“She brought it on herself, they repeat to themselves. They silently spit her name, call her a stupid slut for giving herself up. She made her bed.”
There is plenty of symbolism throughout the book, the meaning of most of it open to interpretation by the reader. The most striking for me is the white horse that comes into the compound at night, one of the women becoming convinced that this horse is her means of escape. This is the same woman who was involved with the married politician and who for a large portion of the book believes that he will come and rescue her. This brought to mind the idea of the damsel in distress waiting for the knight on his white horse to charge in and save the day. But as we learn from Wood’s novel, this idea really is nothing more than that, an idea, and we shouldn’t wait for the knight on his horse.
I’m sure the ending will leave many people conflicted, and many people will wonder whether it was even an appropriate ending, considering the events that preceded it. For me – without going into too much detail – it was completely the right way to end it and just goes to show how fickle society can be. In many cases, our memory of these events is only as long as the headline lasts in the paper, before it’s pushed aside by something else.
It’s difficult to write about this book and not lose my way in a rage induced rant, because there’s an anger that threads itself through the novel that is hard not to feel. Many people have said that this anger makes the novel less than what it could have been, but I disagree. The anger should be there because it’s a topic that people should be angry about.
The Natural Way of Things is a perfectly written slap in the face that may leave you simmering with anger for weeks after reading it. As unfortunate as it is to admit, it’s not a book for everyone, and it’s probably because we don’t always like what we see in the mirror. Don’t pick this book up if you’re just after ‘your next read’ – it’s a book that is meant to challenge the reader and leave them questioning why things are the way they are.