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.


4 comments:

  1. What a powerful review, Emily. Thank you. I am a fan of Charlotte Wood's writing, and was looking forward to reading The Natural Way of Things. Now I can't wait.

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    1. Thank you, Maureen, this is so great to hear.

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  2. Hey, I completely agree with you about the two main characters. At first I had trouble distinguishing them too -I personally felt that their voices were very similar early on. My suspicion is that they began as a single character but as the novel developed Charlotte made a decision to split them. (also reviewed the book somewhere on the net ;)

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    1. That's quite an interesting theory...

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