Hello everyone, and welcome back to The Bookworm’s Fantasy! I hope you’re all doing well. Today I’m going to be posting my review of Charlotte Wood’s novel, ‘The Natural Way of Things’. This is a slightly different genre and style of book to my usual reads, and it is a required read for my English Literature “Last Year’s Novels” module for university this year. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy it! Here goes…
She hears her own thick voice deep inside her ears when she says, ‘I need to know where I am.’ The man stands there, tall and narrow, hand still on the doorknob, surprised. He says, almost in sympathy, ‘Oh, sweetie. You need to know what you are.’
Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in a broken-down property in the middle of a desert. 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.
** TRIGGER WARNING ** Contains references to explicit acts of sexual assault, including scenes of rape. Also contains descriptions of barbaric acts of both physical and emotional violence, and perverse attempts to control.
‘The Natural Way Of Things’ was released on 2nd June 2016, and is Charlotte Wood’s _ novel. Her other novels are: Pieces of a Girl (1999), The Submerged Cathedral (2004), The Children (2008) and Animal People (2011). She has also written non-fiction works, including ‘Love and Hunger: Thoughts on the gift of food’ (2012), ‘The Writer’s Room’ (2017) and more. ‘The Natural Way Of Things’ was an instant success, going on to win The Stella Prize, Best Fiction & Overall Book of the Year at the Independent Bookseller Awards, and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.
The novel received much positive praise, for example from Guardian: “Charlotte Wood carries us from a nightmare of helplessness and despair to a fantasy of revenge and reckoning”, The Economist: “The Handmaid’s Tale for our age”, Weekend Australian: “Confronting and blazing”, and so much more. Many authors also praised the work, including Christos Tsiolkas: “You can’t shake off this novel; it gets under your skin, fills your lungs, breaks your heart”, Malcolm Knox: “[the novel] is a brave, brilliant book” and Joan London: “A fully imagined dystopian parable, vivid, insightful…”
‘The Natural Way Of Things’ tells the story of a group of girls who find themselves trapped in a makeshift prison in the middle of the desert. They are forced to wear uniforms, shave their heads, complete gruelling manual labour and are guarded by two vicious men. All girls are linked by their past sexual scandals and hope to be rescued soon…but the food supplies begin to run low, and the girls soon discover that they can only rescue themselves.
The narrative is structured around the seasons: Part One is set in Summer, Part Two is set in Autumn, and so forth. The story is told in the third person, with each chapter/section focusing on either of the two point-of-view characters: Yolanda and Verla. There are 10 young women imprisoned in total, 2 guards and 1 “nurse”.
Yolanda and Verla are the two key protagonists in the novel. Verla was the politician’s mistress, and Yolanda was involved in a sex scandal with a group of footballers. We are never told the full stories of these scandals, but we don’t need to know every detail…they are all fairly familiar in the media at this point. We view the atrocities taking place at the “prison” through these girls’ eyes. They are understandably scared and attempt to break free at first, but the male jailers soon put them in their place, and they must follow the rules and regulations put into practice by their guards.
The other girls imprisoned in the novel are: Isobel (the airline girl), Hetty (the cardinal’s girl), Maitlynd (the school principal’s head girl), Rhiannon (the gamer girl – also known as Codebabe, she was the sex symbol for every gamer in the country), Lydia (the cruise-ship girl), Leandra (the army girl), and little Asian Joy. And we have Nancy, the nurse. The male jailers, Boncer and Teddy, are animalistic and predatory, often inflicting terrible acts of violence upon the girls and using them to fulfil their sexual needs and desires.
** TRIGGER WARNING ** This novel describes, in explicit detail, acts of sexual assault and sexual violence, including multiple scenes of rape. All of the women were involved in sexual scandals, and continue to be sexually humiliated in the “prison”. The novel also describes extreme and barbaric acts of both physical and emotional violence, as the girls are repeatedly beaten and humiliated. The guards inflict extreme measures upon each of the girls in attempts to control and regulate their behaviour. This is an extremely difficult and harrowing read, and if any of these issues may trigger a negative response for you, I would suggest you skip this book.
As the narrative motors on, we see the girls beginning to settle into their new routine. They must wear Amish-like garments and heavy boots, are chained together like dogs and forced to march for several hours, sleep in kennel-like boxes…the brutality goes on and on. Any attempts to escape or act out are met with severe punishment, and the girls have no choice but to comply when they realise that nobody is coming to save them.
This contemporary feminist masterpiece illustrates extreme versions of modern-day sexism and battles between the sexes. It’s a troubling read, one that reminds us that there are males out there who still feel the need to dominate and control females. Sexism and unequality of the sexes is still an issue, and this book helps us to remember that. The females in the novel are labelled as sluts, slags, whores, tramps, dogs, the list goes on…all because they demonstrated their individual sexuality in the past.
So, let’s talk about the ending. Wood has an amazing skill at making you believe the narrative is going to go a certain way, but then throwing in a curveball and taking the story in a completely different direction. Wood really played with my emotions at the end, and I really appreciated that. I really enjoyed how open-ended the novel was left – but I need a sequel!!!
Overall, this is an exceptional read, and one that I believe is extremely important. Those of you who enjoy reading about key societal issues, and particularly those of you who enjoy reading contemporary feminist literature, will really enjoy this novel. It’s dark and harrowing, hopeful and admirable…and it’ll make you feel so many different emotions. A brilliant read!
Happy reading 🙂