The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood [A Review]

In The Natural Way of Things, a group of women have been abducted and imprisoned in an isolated part of Australia. With finite resources and no reason to hope for rescue, various instincts for survival begin to manifest.

Cover Image of The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

A group of young women find themselves imprisoned with no idea why. They huddle together out of an instinct of fear even though they are strangers and can’t be certain if they can trust each other. Their terror builds with ominous sounds from the next room until a man enters and asks who wants to be first. The women are taken one at a time to the next room where their hair is cut and then shaved. When one has the temerity to ask where she is, she is told she needs to understand what she is.

Made to wear tunics and boots “like out of some hillbilly TV show from the eighties”, the women are taken outside, clipped together and made to march. The area around their station is dish-shaped and they are taken to the top of the ridge and shown the electrified fences that make escape impossible and the complete isolation that makes escape pointless. Though they may not have noticed it yet, there are other signs that suggest any hope they have of returning to their former lives, or that they are even here for a purpose, is dangerously misplaced. Their station looks derelict, consisting of shacks with corrugated iron. The administrative building has no phone, no computer, everything is done with paper and rubber stamps. And the men who guard them do not seem to be the products of some disciplined martial training, but the type who would take this job out of a love of power and violence or because they can’t get anything else.

Though they are all strangers to each other, the women begin to recognise familiar faces among them. Faces they’ve seen in the news, tabloids or social media. They each seem to be women who have been victims of some form of abuse, or have been accused of some indiscretion, probably sexual, or are whistle-blowers who stood up to power. The powerful men they exposed, voluntarily or not, are varied from football players to politicians to a cardinal. Could it be that this is what connects them all, that this is the reason they are all here?

One night, one dark room, that bastard and his mates, one terrible mistake. And then one giant fucking unholy mess.

Months pass without any contact with the outside world. Even the guards were expecting some. With a growing sense of abandonment shared by all, the discipline of the guards begins to disintegrate. A culture within the station rapidly evolves with tribes forming and superstitions solidifying. While some of the women break down at the loss of hope, others become hardened and resourceful with the expectation that nothing good is ever going to come their way again.

The Natural Way of Things came to be on my reading list at the suggestion of my wife. Though her main comment about it was that she found it ‘weird’. That may be one word to describe it. The Natural Way of Things certainly belongs to that group of feminist literature, that often combine a dystopian setting with themes of the mistreatment of women, from the unequal to the inhumane, which is enjoying a lot of popularity at the moment and is becoming a genre of its own. Fans of those works would probably enjoy this book’s take on these themes too.

The visor of the bonnet was rounded, a long half-tunnel you looked down. When you had it on it was like playing blind man’s bluff., like wearing a periscope, you couldn’t see anything but a small round patch before you. If you wanted to talk to someone you had to swing your head right around and then all you saw was the side of their beak. It was clever, really. Even when you got up the guts to talk, it put you off.

On my first reading, The Natural Way of Things was not overtly political or ideological. What instead made the biggest impression with me was the variety of survival instincts that such an environment brings out. Some of the women cling to the flimsiest shred of hope, doing little for their situation in the expectation of rescue, risking their own emotional collapse if that hope should evaporate and seeking comfort amongst the group. Others abandon pretentions of hope and search for the means of their survival as if this is the beginning of the rest of their lives and they seem to prefer to go alone. The difference may be the willingness to take responsibility for their survival. But responsibility is unavoidable and as their situation worsens, the need for sacrifice and the potential for betrayal grows.

Despite the impression of dystopia and the theme of the mistreatment of women, it’s the acts people commit, the moral compromises and transactions they make, when their survival is on the line that left the biggest impression on me and made me feel that survivalism is a large aspect of the novel.

That being said, on reflection the survivalism aspect of the novel is subordinate to the ideas it contains about society and women. Why after all, are they here where their survivor instincts are needed?

It was why they were here, she understood now. For the hatred of what came out of you, what you contained. What you were capable of. She understood because she shared it, this dull fear and hatred of her body. It had bloomed inside her all her life, purged but regrowing, unstoppable, every month: this dark weed and the understanding that she was meat, was born to make meat.

The novel mostly focuses on those women in the station who stand apart and take an individualistic approach to their imprisonment. Among the other women, there seems to be a lack of solidarity despite their choice to stick together. They seem to judge other women, probably in the same terms as the men who imprisoned them, and are oblivious to any parallel.

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.

Is the idea that they have been so indoctrinated, presumably by a patriarchal culture, that even now they cannot emancipate themselves of such thinking? Or is this thinking a part of their natural survival-instinct, which exists irrespective of environment and, like other instincts, is being enhanced and brought to the surface by their imprisonment and in the absence of more enlightened societal values?

Also, the women who band together seem more upset at the loss of modern luxuries and more covetous for their return than they are at their loss of autonomy and their precarious life resources. Again, have they been so used by modern consumerism that even here their instincts are perverted towards things that ultimately don’t matter?

These ideas about the behaviour of the majority of the imprisoned women in the novel are subtle but hard for the reader to miss and lend a mystique about the themes of the novel and the intentions of the author.

What Wood does best in The Natural Way of Things is unnerve the reader by submerging them in the terror the characters all feel in the early phases of the novel. She does this by giving the reader a sensory experience; the sights, sounds and smells of the new environment that unsettles and terrifies the characters, and doing this with a frank, warts-and-all honest style. The way they rapidly retreat to an unconscious, primal, instinctual version of themselves in response is equally disturbing. This, and the moral choices that come late in the novel, after the reader is invested, were the highlights for me.

There were also a couple of moments in the plot that reminded me of that classic work of isolation and collapse – The Lord of the Flies. I can’t be sure that these were deliberate nods to that work that also explores the fragility of social and moral structures but within an all-male context.

What would people in their old lives be saying about these girls? Would they be called missing? Would some documentary program on the ABC that nobody watched, or one of those thin newspapers nobody read, somehow connected their cases, find the thread to make them a story? The Lost Girls, they could be called. Would it be said, they ‘disappeared’, ‘were lost’? Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves. They lured abduction and abandonment to themselves, they marshalled themselves into this prison where they made their beds, and now, once more, were lying in them.

My one minor quibble is that, like some science-fiction and speculative-fiction, a certain suspension of reality is required. A couple of minor details did not ring true for me, but the reader has to go along to allow the scenario and story to play out.

‘Weird’ it may be, but The Natural Way of Things contains plenty of material for thought and discussion without being terribly overt about what it is trying to say. As well as the difference of an all-female context, it attempts to show how differently the isolation scenario would play out in an era of social media and consumerism. That, and the overarching theme of the mistreatment of women, means there is no shortage of provocative material for readers.


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