Book: The Natural Way of Things
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Charlotte Wood is the author of five novels and a book of non-fiction, and editor of The Writer’s Room Interviews magazine. Her last novel, Animal People, was longlisted for the Miles Franklin award and her other books have been shortlisted for many prizes including the Miles Franklin and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction. The Australian described her as “one of our finest and most chameleonic writers”. She lives in Sydney.
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 nowhere. 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.
Charlotte Wood’s confronting story of misogyny is both shockingly realist in its details and deeply allegorical in its shape. Ten young women, all of whom have been involved in some kind of sexual scandal involving powerful men, are drugged and taken to a remote location, apparently an abandoned sheep station. There they are held indefinitely, in primitive conditions reminiscent of the detention centres that surround us today, where prisoners are held without trial, without any prospect of freedom, and staff openly abuse inmates.
The novel shows how misogyny is both institutionalised – they are punished for being women, simply – and internalised by the girls themselves who, for the most part, seem to believe that ‘through the natural way of things,’ they brought this fate on themselves. Yolanda, when she realises this, retreats from humankind, turning herself into an animal, like those she traps and feeds to the others. Verla, the other focus character who enables readers to enter imaginatively into this suffocating prison world, has to pass through madness before she stops believing that she will be rescued. The other girls find resources among themselves to take action, as the novel builds to a violent climax and a disturbing resolution.
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