Australian author Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things was mine and Katie’s March book club choice. We were both eager to read it, and whilst I have seen some largely positive, but ultimately rather mixed reviews floating around, I am delighted to say that I was immediately pulled in, and could barely put the novel down.
Let us begin with some of the more positive criticism. The Economist believes that ‘Charlotte Wood’s writing is direct and spare, yet capable of bursting with unexpected beauty’. The Sydney Morning Herald deems it ‘an extraordinary novel: inspired, powerful, at once coherent and dreamlike’. Author Liane Moriarty writes that it gives ‘an unforgettable reading experience’. It is also the winner of 2016’s Indie Books of the Year prize.
The Natural Way of Things is an incredibly dark novel. In it, ten young women awake from sedation, knowing not where they are, nor what they are doing there. They are in the middle of the Australian bush, in a camp; they are stripped of their humanity, with heads shaved, and their own clothes taken away upon admission. The girls find, after quite some time, that they have been taken to this camp as punishment for being embroiled in sexual scandals; from sleeping with several members of a football team, to having an explicit affair with a man in the public eye. The girls are all markedly different, but their shameful secrets are what brand them the same.
From the first, we feel protagonist Yolanda’s disorientation; we are privy to it: ‘So there were kookaburras here. This was the first thing Yolanda knew in the dark morning. … She got out of bed and felt gritty boards beneath her feet. There was the coarse unfamiliar fabric of a nightdress on her skin. Who had put this on her?’ Wood allows us to see her dilemma: ‘She knew she was not mad, but all lunatics thought that’. Yolanda also, rather touchingly, takes an inventory of herself during her first morning in captivity: ‘Yolanda Kovocs, nineteen years eight months. Good body (she was just being honest, why would she boast, when it had got her into such trouble?). … One mother, one brother, living. One father, unknown, dead or alive. One boyfriend, Robbie, who no longer believed her… One night, one dark room, that bastard and his mates, one terrible mistake. And then one giant fucking unholy mess.’
There is a nightmarish quality to the novel, and the reader cannot help but put themselves into Yolanda’s shoes. Her only company in the compound comes from fellow inmate Verla. The present of both girls is interspersed with memories from their pasts; in this simple yet effective manner, we learn a great deal about them. Yolanda particularly uses her memories as a coping mechanism against the uncertainty she feels.
The core plot of the novel reminded me, perhaps inevitably, of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but in a way, I feel that it goes further. Like Atwood, Wood ‘depicts a world where a woman’s sexuality has become a weapon turned against her’, but there is something darker at play here. The Natural Way of Things is incredibly tense, and is so horribly vivid in the scenes which it depicts. Gripping and disturbing, this is a must-read novel, which raises powerful questions.