‘The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood
Allen & Unwin; $29.99
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Charlotte Wood’s fifth novel opens on a young woman waking alone in a locked room. The room is bare, its rough boards “gritty … beneath her feet”. Her only access to the outside is a small window high in one wall. Although she does not know how she has come to be there, she knows she has been drugged, her clothes and possessions removed.
In the hours that follow she discovers she is not alone. Together with nine other young women she is now a prisoner in a converted sheep station. Her freedom to act and speak is circumscribed by the guards; the possibility of escape is cut off by the electric fence that surrounds the buildings.
At least at first, the logic behind the group’s predicament remains elusive. Yet as the drugs wear off, and the women gradually adjust to their new surroundings, it becomes apparent that they are here to be re-educated in some way, their individuality scoured from them as retribution for having fallen foul of the behavioural codes that reinforce male privilege.
Part of the triumph of The Natural Way of Things is how it makes this nightmarish scenario feel not just possible but plausible. In part, that is a function of the novel’s horrifyingly acute distillation of the ways in which contemporary society makes women culpable for the very systems that repress them: blaming them when they are raped or seeking to deny what was done to them when it comes to light they have been preyed on sexually by powerful men. Wood’s ferociously visceral yet vernacular language captures these processes with stark and horrible clarity: “One night, one dark room, that bastard and his mates, one terrible mistake. And then one giant fucking unholy mess.”
But the sense of plausibility is also a function of how the novel’s sheer strangeness liberates its narrative to expose the violence and hatred that lie beneath the surface of our society, in a way a more conventional novel might not. Wood illustrates the ways misogyny perpetuates itself, its historical depth and persistence, even the increasingly creepy and insidious marriage between corporate power and patriarchy.
These qualities are made the more unsettling by the novel’s evocation of the landscape. As the women descend into wildness, its mute, brooding presence elides the distinction between escape and self-erasure, self-assertion and self-destruction. And in so doing, it offers a confronting reminder of just how deeply inscribed the codes and structures that ensure women’s subjugation are – the degree to which they are, as the novel’s title would have it, the natural way of things.
James Bradley is an author and a critic. His books include the novels Wrack, The Resurrectionist and Clade.