Book Review: The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things
Title: The Natural Way of Things
Author: Charlotte Wood
Social Media: Goodreads, Facebook and Twitter
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Format and Price: E-Book at $17.79

About The Author:
The Australian newspaper has described Charlotte Wood as “one of our most original and provocative writers.”

She is the author of five novels and a book of non-fiction. Her latest novel, The Natural Way of Things, won the 2016 Indie Book of the Year and Indie Fiction Book of the Year prizes, was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and longlisted for the Miles Franklin. It will be published in the UK and North America in 2016. Charlotte was also editor of the short story anthology Brothers and Sisters, and for three years edited The Writer’s Room Interviews magazine. Her work has been shortlisted for various prizes including the Christina Stead, Kibble and Miles Franklin Awards. ​Two novels — The Children and The Natural Way of Things — have been optioned for feature films.

About The Book:
Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in an abandoned property in the middle of a desert in a story of two friends, sisterly love and courage – a gripping, starkly imaginative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control, and of what it means to hunt and be hunted.

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.

The Natural Way of Things is a gripping, starkly imaginative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control, and of what it means to hunt and be hunted. Most of all, it is the story of two friends, their sisterly love and courage.

With extraordinary echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale and Lord of the Flies, The Natural Way of Things is a compulsively readable, scarifying and deeply moving contemporary novel. It confirms Charlotte Wood’s position as one of our most thoughtful, provocative and fearless truth-tellers, as she unflinchingly reveals us and our world to ourselves.

General Observations:
~Feminist Think Piece: There’s a reason why this book won The Stella Prize for 2016. It very metaphorical, symbolic and very literary. I can imagine this book being very decisive and possibly polarizing, not just among literary critics but also among Feminist Readers such as myself. Books like these need to be studied at university level to give forum to conversation about Misogyny, Sexism (internalized or otherwise) and Domestic Violence in Australia.

Especially since a woman is murdered once a week due to Domestic Violence in Australia. However, I get the impression that this book was written for someone who isn’t that familiar with Feminism or doesn’t read Feminist literature/articles (though I will not proclaim myself to be an expert on Feminism), because sometimes the symbolism (while is still necessary) does sometimes come across as heavy-handed (such as the make-up as a symbol).

~Rule of Symbolism: I don’t want to spoil the ending, but the ending made me angry, however I understand that perhaps the ending was supposed to make me angry. I was supposed to want the women’s uprising and for the women to hijack the metaphorical bus. However I was mostly angry because the heavy use of symbolism. One of the symbols used is the giant Electric Fence of Death, it’s literally used to contain EVERYONE (not just the women) and one of the women use it to kill themselves. No-one can get in and no-one can get out. But it did make me wonder how and why there were so many rabbits and at least one kangaroo inside the confines of the fence (I get it, “Symbolism”, but symbolism should still have a degree of practicality).

One such example is the make-up and feminine luxuries being used as a symbol of male oppression and the acceptance of make-up as women accepting male oppression (despite the fact that these women have been essentially living in a concentration camp for over six months, if they want to wear make-up, that’s their choice). The whole point of Feminism is for women to be able to make the choice themselves, not have the choice forced upon them. Simply going from one extreme (no make-up, no showering/bathing, no access to plumbing, no access to clean clothes) to the other (make-up and other feminine hygiene products like sanitary napkins, toilet access on a bus) is still enforcing the patriarchal belief that people are entitled to tell women what they can and can’t do with regards to personal presentation.

~Two Dimensional Characters: I understand that this is a character-orientated novel, and not my preferred plot-orientated novel, however while the subject is fascinating and interesting, the characters are not engaging enough the carry the novel. Yolanda and Verla are the only two characters the Readers get an intimate perspective from and the pace of their character arch is slow to read, the Reader only gets shallow snippets of the other eight women, despite the fact that Hettie and Nancy are two of the few characters actively pushing the plot along (although I understand why Verla uses the more passive-aggressive method of carefully and meticulously planning her next phase of attack, waiting for the right moment is all she can do). The three guards (Boncer, Teddy and Nancy) are all symbolic, so they lack any exploration or depth (or at least until some of the characters start dying, then the readers gets glimpses into the possibilities of their character but nothing concrete or real).

While Yolanda and Verla grow and change (whether it’s positive or negative is a debate in and of itself) over the course of the novel, none of the other characters do. While this could be argued that this is an intentional message about static characters and their refusal to grow or change or that if women that accept subjection in exchange for privileges won’t advance, this isn’t interesting enough to hold my attention, I found this novel difficult to continue reading and felt the novel lost momentum after the plot-point of how the mysterious Hardings isn’t showing up and they (guards and prisoners) were trapped at this supposedly abandoned cattle station.

All in all, The Natural Way of Things is a good book, it’s well written and I would definitely recommend people read it. However it’s not my style of novel (character orientated), I didn’t find it engaging enough and I didn’t find it realistic enough in its application of symbolism. I think the idea behind it is great, but I honestly think it should either be a short story or essay, or even a collection of short stories with “The Natural Way of Things” being the first story and then a series of short stories/chapters detailing and exploring the other characters (who they were, what motivated them, why they were there). However perhaps that’s just me, I understand that even though as a reader I have a strong inclination towards character resolution, however the reality of the matter is that some people don’t change and sometimes there aren’t neat resolutions or easy answers.

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