A dystopian narrative of the future (or possibly the present), an imaginative story of misogyny and internment – Charlotte Wood’s haunting The Natural Way of Things is an Australian answer to Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and with more than a passing reference to the BBC TV series, Tenko.)
A group of 10 young women find themselves imprisoned in a remote, ruinous deserted sheep station somewhere in the Australian outback.
Lorded over by the sadistic Boncer, the camp is surrounded by an unscaleable electric fence. Their captors – Hardings International – represent the corporate moral right, punishing these girls of ‘low moral character’ for their highly public sexual escapades. Their captivity is to teach them ‘what’ they are (what rather than whom. As a discursive parable, The Natural Way of Things highlights that women are generally vilified and blamed rather than seen as victims or part responsible. It is Verla who was at fault in her affair with the politician, Yolanda to blame for being gang-raped).
Each girl is kept in an individual sheep pen, forced into hard labour, issued Hamish-style clothing, shorn of hair and fed starvation rations of dried food. Two males – Boncer and Teddy – are employed to keep them in their place along with the dubious Nancy. But as time passes, the food begins to run out and the Hardings International representative shows no signs of visiting. They are all captives.
The Natural Way of Things is a deeply unsettling yet poetic novel. The title itself raises many questions – is the natural way the survival of the fittest? Is it what has become ‘natural’? (the rampant misogyny in Australian culture?). The girls themselves represent diversity of class, ethnicity, education and personality with each finding their own way (singularly or in groups) to survive their ordeal.
But Woods primarily focuses on the fiercely independent Yolanda and the courageous Verla.
They barely speak to each other yet their bond is deep. In hunting for food, Yolanda keeps captives and captors alike alive. In hunting for mushrooms, Verla keeps herself alive in her determination to kill.
With his baton, Boncer is a vindictive bully, dangerous in his elevation to power: Teddy is a ‘surfer dude’, breezing through yet, less apparent, equally dangerous. As alpha male, Boncer is threatened by Yolanda but, through her hunting prowress, gives her a wide berth. His control slowly breaks down. Now, only the girls can rescue themselves.
With its underlying menace, The Natural Way of Things is bleak. Its starkness, like its landscape, is threatening – in spite of some beautifully poetic prose
‘What? We can’t hear you,’ and then closed her eyes against the sun, hands on her hips, murmuring something beneath her breath. So she didn’t see the man’s swift, balletic leap – impossibly pretty and light across the gravel – and a leather-covered baton in his hand coming whack over the side of her jaw.
Charlotte Wood’s fifth novel has, unsurprisingly, been garlanded with many awards, including the 2016 Stella Prize (best Australian novel written by a woman) and joint-winner of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literature (shared with Lisa Gorton and The Life of Houses). The Natural Way of Things was shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Black Rock White City by A.S. Patric.