A confluence of factors has led ‘domestic violence’ and ‘violence against women’ to be placed high on the public and governmental agenda. The critique of “patriarchy” and the assertion of an almost metaphysical connection between deep culture and violence provides the theoretical backbone of this agenda. It is in this context that Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things received the Stella prize earlier this year (the title of the book refers to the media’s portrayal of violence against women).
This is a book of exquisite earthy prose which chronicles the experience of two women (Verla and Yolanda) amongst half a dozen or so other women, who, having been swindled and drugged, are plunged into a nightmarish boot-camp, a remote and expansive bowl of earth surrounded by a 6 metre high electrified fence. The reason for internment is that each has been involved in behaviours deemed inappropriate by the lights of ‘society’; sexual behaviours, ranging from affairs with politicians, to sleeping with a talent show host, a football team.
Parallels between contemporary social issues and the book’s magical (absurd) realism are clear. Yolanda reminisces about herself, naked, staring into a mirror, pondering the peculiar esteem placed by culture on her youthful body, and vexed by the relation between female-body, the male-gaze and selfhood. The place she and the others are imprisoned carries an Auschwitz-styled mantra on dishware and tea towels ‘Dignity and Respect in a Safe and Secure Environment’; an ironic two-fold dig at themes many critics observe lingering whenever Australian communities try to come to terms with a recent physical assault – that women (but not men) are to blame for their misfortune, and that the best thing in a naturally dangerous world is to encourage woman to stay ‘safe and secure’ at home.
In this prison world the women lead a life of boredom, fear, and drudgery. They are clipped to one another and are led on arduous and aimless expeditions, the sadistic ‘main guard’, Boncer, ever ready with a whip-stick on hand, drags them by a leash. True to cliché, the women are later assigned to heavy labour. Dinner, concocted from packet foods, is served in a gritty cafeteria by an unsympathetic female employee, Nancy. At night the prisoners are kept in a squalid partitioned shed referred to as ‘the kennels’. This wretched order is maintained under the expectation that Hardings, the owner of the facility, will soon return bearing bonuses for the staff, and release for the prisoners.
But when for some unknown reason Hardings’ return is called off, the meaninglessness of routine overburdens even the employed guards and a benign anarchy takes root. And when food supplies run low, no longer controlling the means of (food) production, the established hierarchy of control begins to collapse. As the former rulers come to rely on their prisoners, both groups learn to co-exist.
One of the novels themes now changes its stride ‘What am I?’ Verla asks herself throughout. No longer about misogyny, as such (nor about the formation of a matriarchal utopia!), the novel shifts focus to the immense difficulty of building a meaningful life when lacking cultural artefacts and social institutions. Within this barren existence, each of the girls struggles to scrape together a meaning for themselves.
On the book rambles, with a deeply sensuous, sometimes gory, prose. A fevered Verla lies in the grass, kangaroos unknowingly bounding over her as she dreams of a spirit in herself to be freed; Yolanda carves an earthy new identity, becoming ‘muscled like a man’, scouring the terrain as a rabbit hunter, skinning and plucking organs from the creatures with relish, staring at the ‘gory ragged hems of their necks’.
In this fashion Wood gives even the smallest elements of nature character. She is gifted with a poetic power for textural analogy and metaphor. These descriptions are one of the books most outstanding qualities. However, I have the suspicion that sometimes Wood’s language (like a ‘grubby star’) emerge not out of the necessity of the work itself but from a personal compulsion to apply a creative lens wherever possible.
It is no more a requirement that good literature be ‘balanced’ than it is of good science, but in our current atmosphere of reciprocal complaint, what does this book imply about men, if anything? The kindest sentiments are initially dedicated to Verla’s Andrew (her politician-lover), whose ideal she eventually abandons (by way of a prolonged meditation on Walt Whitman). Teddy, a yoga junkie, the passive ‘second in command’, might have been a figure of redemption. His physique stirs lust in some of the prisoners, but he falls afoul of the collective imagination after his complaints about an ex-lover are overheard, and the women begin to imagine that those same complaints could equally be applied to themselves (at a later point, his character seems inexplicably and unfairly revised in the negative – one of several psychological ‘liberties’ used in the book). The only male figure who receives genuine pathos is the memory of Verla’s wheel-chair-bound father. It is suggestive, however, that Boncer, the most depraved and genuinely sexist character, fulfils a common trope: skinny, weak, and girl-afraid with low self-esteem.
There is a sense of ‘balance’ here, albeit a pessimistic one. The women do not fare much better; most of the captives are treated to the author’s contempt, and characterised as passive, and superficial. Despite their encampment in the wilderness, several remain obsessed with beauty routines (they’ve known nothing else), obsessively preening and plucking hair from each other’s bodies; with the only productive, group-oriented characters being Yolanda and Verla. The former provides food for all, ensuring the groups survival without expecting recompense; the latter helps in this task but bears a dark mycological motive.
Overall Wood has produced an unusual mix of social satire, spiritual exploration, realism and absurdity. The acerbic and reactionary satire of the first half gives way to a much more sensuous universe of nature in the second. Her cynical, ambiguous and un-doctrinaire portrayal of humanity, on a subject so close to the (political) passions of many, is oddly refreshing. There is a message of female empowerment (the light at the end of the tunnel), but anyone who seeks it needs to journey through an imaginative, textured account of a shocking world.