This review first appeared on The Spinoff on 4 August 2016.
There’s something inevitable, natural even, about the way victims of sexual abuse can end up being blamed for what’s happened to them. Sometimes it’s so overt and egregious that we’ll all be outraged – like the Canadian judge who in 2014 asked an alleged rape victim why she couldn’t just keep her knees shut – but the rest of the time, it can feel normal, embedded in the very language, “the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things. As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.” This idea, and Australian writer Charlotte Wood’s rage about it, is the fuel for her fifth novel, The Natural Way of Things, which won Australia’s big new prize for women writers, the Stella Prize, earlier this year.
The idea came from a radio documentary Wood heard about the Hay Institution for Girls, where the most troublesome girls in New South Wales were sent between 1961 and 1974. Many were there because they had dared to disclose sexual abuse. They were labeled “promiscuous”, drugged, put on a train to the repurposed men’s prison, and forbidden to speak, or look up from the floor, ever. They spent their days breaking concrete and marching in formation; their nights facing the wall, woken hourly. Neighbours heard screams at night.
Wood set out to write a fictional response, but something about the 1960s setting didn’t work – perhaps it was the fact that the ideas she was trying to relegate to history were still so pervasive. She moved her “promiscuous” girls to the near future, and followed her instincts. The result is a deeply disturbing – and yet highly readable – meditation on misogyny, violence, and incarceration.
Yolanda, Verla, and eight other young women wake up drugged and disoriented in an isolated sheep station. Their heads are shaved and they are leashed together and made to march in the blistering sun to be shown the massive electric fence containing them. Their keepers are acned Boncer, twitchy, insecure, and dangerous; dreadlocked hippy Teddy, whose penchant for yoga and whole foods doesn’t extend to an enlightened attitude towards women; and skinny, giggling Nancy, who abdicates responsibility by raiding the first aid supplies for pills, any pills.
As they adjust to their horrific new reality, the girls figure out what they have in common: involvement in some kind of high-profile sex scandal. Either people close to them have signed them up for this treatment, or they have been coerced into signing the paperwork themselves. The facility is owned by a shadowy corporate entity called Hardings (“dignity and respect in a safe and secure environment,” it says on the crockery they eat their packet noodles from). Their day-to-day incarceration has been subcontracted to Boncer, Teddy and Nancy, who don’t have much idea of what they are doing, but know are doing it for “the bonuses,” and enjoy experimenting with their arbitrary power using casual violence and abuse.
As the weeks and then months pass, it becomes clear that Hardings has abandoned Boncer, Teddy and Nancy along with the girls, and the story turns into one of physical and psychological survival. Everyone develops their own coping strategies, some more damaging than others. There’s a growing hum of tension about who will eventually fall victim to Boncer’s sexual rage. We focus on Yolanda, who saves the group by learning to trap rabbits, becoming more and more like a wild animal herself, and Verla, who is intent on finding a death cap mushroom with which to murder Boncer.
Wood – whose last novel was called Animal People – has clearly thought a lot about what separates humans from animals. The trapped young women are dehumanised, but as time passes, their animal status becomes a source of fear rather than power for their captors. There’s a particularly satisfying passage when Teddy protests the use of the traps, oblivious to the irony of his complaint.
“He frowns down and Verla knows he is thinking ugh at the two filthy girls, that he is freshly fearful of the lice eggs in their matted hair, of Verla stretched white with illness, of Yolanda and her rusted weaponry. He fears their thin feral bodies, their animal disease and power. ‘It’s cruel,’ he says, afraid. Together they snigger up at him, showing their small grey teeth.”
Everything is very contained. It’s as if Wood challenged herself to contain not only the girls, but the novel itself inside the electric fence. We only ever know what the girls know, the only backstory comes from their memories or what they overhear, and the only escape is in their subconscious and fevered dreams. When the end comes, we know even less about what awaits them, but we can tell it isn’t good.
When I finished this book, I felt worn down. Perhaps I’ve been watching too much crime drama about creepy attitudes towards women, or reading about too many rape cases. I’m getting kind of sick of it, but of course that’s the point. So was Wood and that’s why she wrote this.
It’s been called The Handmaid’s Tale meets Lord of the Flies, and both are valid comparisons, but Wood’s work has a dreamier and more subconscious quality. She was inspired, in part, by the French sculptor Louise Bourgeois, known for her works containing female body parts in cages. In many ways The Natural Way of Things is a literary equivalent. The presence of cage isn’t explained, nor its contents, yet it leaves a searing impression of something both terrifying and familiar that stays with you long after you look away.