Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin 2015)
This book came to me accompanied by the same dire warnings as A Little Life. It’s a very hard read, I was told, whose author subjects her characters – plural this time, and female – to unremitting and implausible suffering.
The warnings were justified, but Charlotte Wood’s book is a very different beast from Hanya Yanigahara’s. Jude St Francis’s sufferings are extreme, the men who inflict them are inscrutable monsters and Jude suffers in isolation despite the best efforts of the people who love him. The young women in Charlotte Wood’s fable are punished, not with reason but with a kind of logic. The hands-on perpetrators are loathsome, but knowable, and at some moments pathetic. The ‘girls’ have mostly been abandoned by people they thought loved them. And where Jude remains passively saintlike in his suffering, hurting no one but himself, the ‘girls’ get nasty, manipulative, even murderous, and we mostly love them for it. Also this book is a lot shorter than the other – it’s not out to test a reader’s stamina.
The Natural Way of Things is a fable involving a group of young women, each of whom turns out to have been caught up in a sexual scandal – an affair with a bishop, rape by a group of footballers, a cruise-ship degradation. They include a politician’s PA, a woman from the army, an elite athlete and a child television star. By going public, or being made public, they have each attracted huge media attention. In a kind of metaphor for the prevalent attitude to such women (see the online comments section about any sex scandal involving a woman), they are imprisoned in an abandoned sheep station in western New South Wales, and consigned to oblivion there with two male guards and a bizarrely incompetent woman who is presumably meant to look after their health.
It’s hard going in the first third of the book as their terrible conditions are revealed. They wear coarse clothes, sleep locked in rooms that resemble dog kennels, have no facilities to wash their clothes or themselves, subsist on a diet of vile yellow muck, and do hard physical labour interspersed with beatings. Their prison is surrounded by a deadly, high, electrified fence.
But even that early part is not just an enumeration of horrors. Sure, there’s a broken jaw here, a suppurating burn there, but the narrative takes us inside the women’s heads. It traces the gradual shift to a sense of themselves as more elemental, more animal than they have ever imagined. So when the prison’s (but not the fence’s) electricity fails and they realise that they have been completely abandoned by the outside world, the movement – at least for the main characters – is not towards despair so much as towards a new way of being in the world, towards reclaiming their reality as physical beings in a physical universe.
It’s a fable. That is to say, it’s not an account of things that could actually happen. It’s more Mad Max meets Kafka than Orange Is the New Black. Reading it in the wake of the Don Day footage and the release of the Nauru files, I realise it’s not entirely fantastical either – if anything, it’s milder than those grim realities. But it is a fable, with its own visceral reality, and beautifully written. I don’t know if Charlotte Wood was ever sent to boarding school, but some of the writing captures that awful claustrophobia. And I don’t know if she comes from the country, but all through the book the descriptions of the countryside leaven and intensify the desolation of her characters. For example:
In the field they labour, chipping weeds, shovelling gravel, raking. The pile of concrete chunks has gone, the pieces laid out end to end into the distance. The road corridor has been cleared, the hard dry dirt graded with their hands and ancient hoes and rakes. Edges have been dug and sloped to stop erosion. As they scraped and cleared the knee-high grass they have shrieked and dropped their tools and leaped from the slithering path of brown snakes and red-bellied blacks, or the stomping shuffle of the thick-necked, weaving goannas. Bird calls drop from the skies all day long and, taught by Leandra, the bird nerd from the army, they recognise them now: not just the screams of cockatoos and corellas or the squawking lorikeets, but also the floatier melodies of wagtails, butcherbirds, thrushes and kites. At night the mournful, mournful stone curlews cry.
The Natural Way of Things is the ninth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.