It’s hard to miss the stories in the news these days involving men sexually assaulting or abusing women, getting a slap on the wrist, and then the women being put through hell for speaking up about their assault. The women get blamed — she was drunk, she was known to sleep around, why was she with that/those guy(s) anyway, she’s a gold digger, etc. We’ve also seen many stories over the years about married men having affairs, being contrite and then the other woman being dragged through the mud for being a slut. The reality of this misogyny is what makes Charlotte Wood’s novel The Natural Way of Things so frightening and so difficult to put down. Set in contemporary Australia (and winner of the Stella Prize for Fiction), this novel imagines a group of inconvenient young women who have been drugged and shipped off to a detention center, actually more like a forced labor camp, in the Outback. As the sadistic guard Boncer will tell Verla, one of the main characters, you don’t need to know where you are, You need to know what you are. For Boncer and public opinion, these women are sluts, slags, and whores, whether they willingly engaged in sex with men who are let off the hook, or were victims of sexual assault. They are objects of fear because of their sexuality, their bodies and what they can do. Verla and the other main character Yolanda will find out what they truly are as they struggle to survive and escape the camp.
This story is told through the the eyes of Verla, age 23, and Yolanda, age 19, whom we meet as they are regaining consciousness in a hot dark cell. We/they eventually learn that they and a group of other young women (a dozen in all) are being kept at an abandoned sheep shearing facility surrounded by a tall electric fence that can burn and kill those who touch it. The women are dressed in coarse Amish-type clothing with bonnets that restrict their vision; their heads are shorn; they are led on leashes and sleep locked in small cells called dog boxes. Their captors are Boncer, the sadist who carries a big stick and enjoys verbally and physically abusing the women; Teddy, the yoga-practicing surfer dude in dreadlocks who likes to complain about his ex-girlfriend; and Nancy, the “nurse” who seems to know very little about nursing and pines after Boncer and Teddy. The women are fed inadequate rations and forced to move concrete slabs to build a road for “when Hardings comes.” It will not be clear until the end of the novel what the significance of that event is. In the meantime, the women find a variety of ways to survive, physically and mentally, the horrors of their situation.
The women are all young and they all recognize each other from news stories. Barbs was a swimmer with Olympic potential until …she had to open her mouth about the ‘sports massages.’ On the coach’s hotel bed. And then the whole team called her some slurry from Cronulla and that was it…. The crimes of the other young women include being raped by a record producer affiliated with an American Idol-type TV show; being underage and in photos in the possession of a Catholic Cardinal; being the school headmaster’s special girl; and complaining about one’s boss’s sexual harassment. Yolanda was gang raped by a football team, which made the team owners unhappy with Yolanda. Verla was an intern having an affair with the married Prime Minister, who had, incidentally, given her a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Initially, Verla is convinced that she is not like the other women and she has little concern for any of them. She is sure that Andrew, the PM, is looking for her and that it won’t be long before she is freed. As time passes, she imagines that a white horse is outside somewhere and that as long as the horse is there, she will make it. Yolanda is tough and strong. She is committed to survival and while she thinks Verla is delusional for expecting that anyone is looking for or waiting for her, she recognizes a kindred spirit, a woman committed to survival. Over time, each of the women at the camp finds a “pet,” i.e., a project or interest that keeps her busy and somewhat sane. Yolanda turns into a sort of hunter and Verla into a gatherer, and together they actually help everyone from starving when food supplies run out. More importantly, Yolanda and Verla are transformed by their activities. As Yolanda sets rabbit traps, learns to catch and skin them, she becomes more in tune with her own body and the dark, messy side of womanhood that terrifies men and even repulses some women. Yolanda’s sense of her own power and independence grows. Verla’s growth is more problematic and involves illness and ultimately being reconciled with reality.
In addition to addressing negative male attitudes toward women and society’s bias against women whose sexuality is not kept secret or in line with norms, Wood also examines women’s attitudes and biases toward each other. One might expect the group of incarcerated women to band together in solidarity, and while they do cooperate for survival, they have their own prejudices. Some show derision for Yolanda for being so committed to hunting (and being so dirty); Yolanda seems increasingly remote and she is also the object of Boncer’s base urges. Another young woman, who makes a sacrifice to help herself and the group, is shown little compassion. She brought it on herself, they repeat to themselves. They silently spit her name, call her a stupid slut….
The end of this story is very interesting and could lead to some great discussion in a group, but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone who might read The Natural Way of Things. And you should! One is left wondering what “the natural way of things” really is.