The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

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The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Devastating critique of misogyny generally and the victim-blaming culture that is part of it. Haunting, dark and utterly beautifully written, The Natural Way of Things is a hard but necessary read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: June 2016
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 1760291870

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Yolanda and Verla wake up disorientated. They realise they've been drugged. Yolanda thinks that perhaps they are in some kind of mental facility - She knew she was not mad, but all lunatics thought that. Verla just sits, still and frozen, waiting. And soon enough, two men arrive to reveal their fate. Yolanda and Verla, along with eight other girls, have been brought to a remote farmhouse surrounded by an electrified fence. Their heads are shaved. They are dressed in uncomfortable, scratchy, Amish-style clothes. They are tied together like a chain gang. And, like any chain gang, their days are marked with forced labour. Two men, one more cruel than the other, and a so-called nurse are their jailers, not their guardians.

But why are they there?

It soon transpires that each of the girls have been at the centre of some sort of sex scandal - a gang rape by sports stars, an affair with a powerful politician, you know the sort of thing. And they are being punished for it. The girls dream of rescue but before it comes, the food starts running out. And so their jailers are prisoners right along with them. The only rescuers the girls can look to are themselves.

Well. What can I say? The Natural Way of Things is an Australian book by an Australian writer and it stands right up in its challenge to the Aussie view of itself as a nation of laid-back, easygoing, non-judgemental types. Because these women are judged. And it is so rooted in the landscape of the outback that it does feel like a particularly Australian story. But I'm a British reader and I am a woman and I too live in a culture that blames and demonises female victims - and this story spoke to me. It was not easy to read.

Wood has written a dystopian fable. And dystopian novels are usually speculative. What if? Could it ever be? And yet there is no what if about The Natural Way of Things. The girls in her book are victims of men and they are further degraded and abused because they are victims of men. This isn't a dystopian vision. This is what happens to victims of rape and sexual abuse today, in Britain as well as in Australia. Reading, I felt almost personally threatened. And I also felt Wood's clear and present anger as my own.

Boncer is the guard you imagine when you think of an abusing misogynist. He is vicious and violent and his verbal abuse never lets up. But perhaps Teddy, the less aggressive of the two, displays the more pernicious misogyny. As the girls eavesdrop on his conversations with Boncer, they listen to the way he describes his ex-girlfriend and seeks to blame all his own frailties and failures on her.

As the girls labour to build a road for Harding's, some kind of corporate overlord acting to immunise men from the women who could expose them, the awful dystopia begins to collapse from the weight of its own contradictions. And the girls work to maintain some semblance of survival and hope in the future. I don't want to say too much about the women here because I think you should discover them for yourselves. They deserve that. You deserve that.

It's a hard and horrible read. But it's also a beautiful one. Raw and angry and lyrical and right.

You might also enjoy The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall , which also tells an important women's story in a dystopian setting.

Booklists.jpg The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood is in the Top Ten Literary Fiction Books of 2016.

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