Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Book Review: The Natural Way of Things

The Natural Way of Things
Charlotte Wood
Allen and Unwin 2015

Some reviews are incredibly hard to write not because you don't know what to say but because there's too much to say, and the sheer skill of the book itself makes you feel inarticulate by comparison.  This was my experience of The Natural Way of Things, the new novel by Charlotte Wood which will be released at the end of this month.  Don't let the beautiful cover fool you: this is not a happy hop, skip and jump through nature.

But more on this cover later!!!
The Natural Way of Things begins when two women wake to find themselves prisoners in an abandoned rural property, guarded by a strange, mismatched trio of guards.  There are a number of other women imprisoned with them, but the points of view from which we enter the story belong to Yolanda and Verla, with Verla's voice in particular being the one that helps the reader make the most sense of what is going on.   Something has made all of these girls targets for the kidnapping but it takes them time to work it out: each one has in their past a sex-scandal which was reported in the media.  The girls are forced to work on the property by day, getting everything ready for the arrival of their captor-- but who is their captor and what does he or she want with them?  As time goes on and humanity begins to break down the girls must face facts-- they may never be going home.

This is a very powerful novel about the politicisation of the female body and female sexuality, in particular with regards to the commodification of these things in the media.  While in theory, a woman's sex life should be personal, modern media reporting has tended towards making the private public and this doesn't tend to apply in the same way to women as it does to men, feeding into trends like 'slut-shaming'.  This double standard is present as a theme of the book, but it's not an overt message pushed through the plot.  In fact, while I would describe the book as somewhat akin to a feminist Lord of the Flies, I wouldn't pigeonhole the book as capital F Feminist, and I wouldn't say it's a book which only appeals to women, though this will most likely be its primary readership.  Sisterhood in the novel is not presented as a solution to the problems the women face.  It's not even presented as wholly possible.  As personal freedoms are broken down, the women are reduced to more animal instincts, and this means that the societal norms are gone.  What appears to us as bad behaviour is a survival instinct to the characters,

There were a few gripes that I had with the book, and the first of which was a very minor nitpick.  Giving both characters names which were a bit less common made them harder to distinguish, and I felt at times that their backgrounds became confused for me.  I wouldn't say that their voices were completely the same; Wood is a very talented writer and I think the voices she created were very authentic, but it was hard for me to separate these and so I don't think I formed an accurate picture of either of them.  Verla for me was more fully realised and part of this had to do with how easily I could understand her scandal.  Yolanda's scandal was somewhat unclear and I fluctuated between believing she had been sold out by her boyfriend to a bunch of football playing mates, and thinking perhaps she had been date raped by a football team.  I seem to recall that there really was a similar situation to this one in the media not that long ago.  I also wasn't certain how old Yolanda was supposed to be.  These issues, however, had minimal impact on my overall enjoyment of the book.

Now!  The cover!  Look closely and in among the flora and fauna you will see a padlock, chains, keys on a ring and the barrel of a gun.  Not so pretty after all...  I think this cover is a great representation of the story, but that only becomes apparent once you've already given this book a chance.  Perhaps it might prove misleading to the unsuspecting reader, but if they pick it up by accident, they'll be gaining an amazing read.  It's a great metaphor for the book itself in many ways.

The Natural Way of Things does not answer all of the many questions that it raises, but don't fear-- this is in fact one of its strengths, making the novel a frighteningly real possibility.  It could be happening right now and none of us would know.  Animal People, the other novel by Charlotte Wood which I read and loved, was completely different from this book so it wasn't at all what I suspected but I was thrilled and challenged by what I read and I can't wait to see how this book does in stores.

I wouldn't be surprised to see this book on the Stella Prize shortlist or the Miles Franklin shortlist.

Four stars.

Monday, 7 September 2015

My Mum Reviews: Double Madness by Caroline De Costa

Double Madness
Caroline de Costa
Margaret River Press, 2015

My mother, Megan, is an avid reader of crime novels, so when a new one gets sent my way, I defer to her higher knowledge of the genre... here's what she has to say about the new crime novel published this year by local mavericks, Margaret River Press

Caroline de Costa’s first crime novel takes place in and around Cairns in Far North Queensland in the aftermath of Yasi, a category five cyclone which made news around the world due to its level of destruction. 

Dr Tim Ingram and his wife discover the partially decomposed body of a woman in the aftermath of the cyclone, a woman who was not a cyclone casualty.  A missing husband, an abandoned car, a fortress home where the impeccable garden has not been cleaned up after the cyclone, and a bevy of doctors and specialists associated with the local hospital provide mystery and intrigue.  Local Detective Senior Constable Cass Diamond, recently relocated to Queensland with her son, has a central role in untangling the complexities of the crime, and its antecedents, while seeking to identify the dead woman, and manger her own personal life. 

The descriptions of Far North Queensland are carefully crafted, and as one who has never been there, offer beautiful scenery including sounds, sights and smells of the tableland.  This is an asset which, combined with the aftermath of Yasi, provides a great setting for the story. The descriptions of the hospital preparations as Yasi approached, and the forays into the bushland around Cairns provide interest and intrigue beyond the main story. 

There were a small number of factors which did not sit quite right. The title of the book and the psychological disorder explanation at the opening of the book made the solution to the mystery less than surprising.  The title alone would not have been overly revealing, and the explanation of ‘Folie a duex’ should have been placed later, perhaps in the dialogue.  This, explaining things too early, and providing a little too much back story was a factor in the book which do not suit me. I tend to find such approaches contrived.  One main example of this would give away a key tenet of the story so I will refrain, but I tend to prefer the questions to arise for me as the story unfolds, and details of character backgrounds to be revealed without too much “storytelling” before they are needed, an approach which was a bit more subtly carried out with respect to the Hermes scarves in the story.  However the premise for the crime, the discovery of the body, and the police investigating the crime are believable, and the trail from crime to resolution kept me reading. 

Despite my reservations I found this a relatively easy read.  I can see how Caroline de Costa’s medical knowledge has assisted with the development of the plot, and it is clear that she loves the landscapes around Cairns.  I will be interested to see the future development of Cass Diamond as a lead character in subsequent investigations.   

Friday, 4 September 2015

August Reading Round-Up

This month was a busy one-- there's just something about the middle of the year!  I am back studying for another semester (or trimester as they have at Deakin) and this time around I am doing two units instead of one.  Interestingly, this week one of my units is focussing on reviewing!  I still managed to get through a few books in August, and some of them were pretty amazing!  Without any further ado, here are the books I devoured in the last four weeks...

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

There is a lot of buzz around Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series, which wraps up in September with a fourth instalment.  Ferrante is an Italian literary sensation, and very few people have actually met her or know her true identity.  Notoriously private, she never grants repeat interviews to any publication, choosing to maintain her private life, and allowing people to interpret what they will about her from her books, which seem to be highly autobiographical.  My Brilliant Friend is a powerhouse of controlled prose, and follows Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo through the first phase of their lives, their childhood's and adolescence.  Lila is an enigmatic figure, mysterious and slightly unhinged but seems to have a power over the narrator, Elena.  Ferrante's depiction of female friendship is the most authentic I have ever come across, and while it was her wonderful writing style which pulled me in at first, I have kept reading for the sheer magnetism of her main characters.  I love these books.  I well and truly have what the internet has deemed #ferrantefever.

Some articles for interested parties: 

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy has by far become my favourite writer from the classical canon.  He was a writer of the Victorian era, but was still alive in the first part of the twentieth century, which blows my mind... there are people alive today who were alive at the same time as Thomas Hardy!  Hardy's own life was intriguing, but it is his unusual characters and his dry humour which make his novels something different.  I had recently seen the recent film adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd, and while I agree there are significant differences between the two texts, I enjoyed both immensely.  I've made it a new goal to continue reading my way through Hardy's backlist.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

My book club book for August/ September, and also my first Murakami.  I don't know what I expected.  This is supposed to be the most realist of Murakami's works and the man can definitely write, but his portrayal of female characters as sexually curious and promiscuous left me wondering how many women Murakami had actually met in real life...  If you were to ignore some of the more lewd scenes, the book is an interesting meditation on the pressures of life, and very readable, but I don't know if I would read it again.

Feet to the Stars by Susan Midalia

I reviewed local author Susan Midalia's third collection here.  Spoiler alert:  I liked it!

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

Charlotte Wood's Animal People was a book which really impressed me so I was very excited to get my hands on an early advance copy of her new book, The Natural Way of Things.  This is a very different novel, but very very intelligent.  It is going to be a book that keeps me thinking for a long time and I cannot wait for it to be released into the big wild world.  I plan to do a proper review later in the week, but for now, suffice to say:  The Natural Way of Things is a novel about a group of women who wake up imprisoned in an abandoned shearing station somewhere in the middle of nowhere.  Their jailers are tightlipped about who has ordered their kidnapping or why, and as time wears on it becomes more and more clear that they may be toughing it out for a long time.  The girls gradually grow to realise that what connects them all to one another is that each one has been involved in a scandal with a powerful man.  The novel meditates on the politicisation of the female body and the culture of slut-shaming that we seem to be developing in Australia.  It is a novel which reduces things to an animal level and leaves the reader gasping as they realise nothing that happens is too far fetched to be happening right now without us knowing.

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

This is yet another circus novel, in the tradition of The Night Circus, which I loved.  I have been putting off reading it for a while because I very recently read The Gracekeepers and I do not want to get circus fatigue!  This novel uses the historical perspective to gently tease out the implications of circus freakshows, revealing the inhabitants of many of these shows to be people born with disabilities and other minority groups.  There are many surprise revelations in this book and I do not want to give them away by talking too much, so I will just say that I found the topic of the book refreshing, if sometimes a little underdeveloped, and always sensitive.  It's hard to be the first to talk about topics which have been taboo, so this was a great book.

Only Ever Yours by Louise O'Neill

You've probably heard a lot about this book if you're on Twitter (and if you're not following Louise O'Neill, you really should be) because the author has a new book coming out this month.  This novel has been described as Mean Girls meets The Handmaid's Tale and I would have to say that is very accurate.  It's about a future of our society when population growth and environmental instability have lead to the world living in elite clusters.  People have altered their bodies so that it is only possible to give birth to sons, and there are ten young men in every cohort who are so important that science has developed the 'Eves', genetically manufactured perfect women who spend their childhoods in a special school where they learn to be perfect wives for these young men.  There are three times as many young women as there are young men, and those Eves who are not chosen become Concubines (for the sexual gratification of these men deemed inappropriate for Wives) or Chastities, a smaller group who look after the new Eves.  This book is subtle in its subversive themes and at first it seems like just another teen novel about bullying and bulimia.  But through the final year of school for frieda and isabel, as the girls begin to question the system, we see a horrifying process at work.  (The girls' names are never capitalised, as girls are not important.)  O'Neill is not afraid to pull any punches, and this book was a binge read I could not put down.