In brief: A group of women, all with some sort of sexual scandal in their recent past, are drugged and taken to an outback prison. When things turn for the worse, who will survive and who will be killed?
The good: Unique, always keeping you guessing.
The not-so-good: Very late night reading more and more and more!
Pages: 314 (ARC)
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Setting: Remote Australia
My rating: 9 out of 10
The Natural Way of Things has a pretty cover. That’s what I thought initially on opening my parcel. It looks quite sweet, flowers and leaves and oh, a rabbit…hang on, is that a knife? A trap? Toadstools? The cover which makes you think and re-evaluate your thoughts is indicative of the entire book. It’s not what you assume initially with the potential to get much, much worse for the characters. The story is original, twisted and thought provoking. It’s a difficult book to categorise – it’s fiction, but it could very easily be a real story from the news bulletins. There’s a dystopic element but everything has the potential to happen in real life. It makes a statement on labelling women in society as worthless but it celebrates the power that can come from reaching your nadir and surpassing it. It’s complex and full of symbolism, yet it’s an engaging, compulsive read.
The whole story takes place in the middle of nowhere, presumably Australia. The isolation is almost a character in the story. It’s always there, lurking in the background and threatening to engulf the lives of the humans. A number of young women have been drugged and taken against their will only to end up at this deserted station in the Outback. As they come to, they are humiliated again – their heads are shaved and they are forced to wear unbecoming, scratchy, old-fashioned uniforms. They are held captive by two men and a woman – they’re shown that there’s no way to leave and survive. The girls soon realise that they have all been involved in some type of sexual scandal, but otherwise they are strangers. Why have they been removed from society? Who is behind it?
As time goes on, the girls settle into a type of routine. But then the food starts to run low and the promised boss doesn’t arrive. It looks like the girls and their gaolers are now alone, together. How will they survive their demons, both physical and mental? When the fight is for life, how far will someone go for self-preservation?
The writing in The Natural Way of Things is taut. Each word practically zings off the pages. It’s angry, it’s blunt, yet is cloaked in mystery to make you as the reader question. Who decides the fate of these girls? Who has the right to? Who decides what is right and wrong? It also made me wonder how I would react in such a situation – become a hunter, gatherer or throw it all at the fence? Through each of the girls, Charlotte Wood explores the responses to such a fate. Then she gets started on the gaolers, and boy, does she run them through the mill. They’re complex and cruel but have a hint of human frailty about them that meant I couldn’t happily cheer when something happened to them. Because in a way, they were just as demeaned as the girls were.
There’s a lot of symbolism in the novel too – I think you could spend hours trying to work out what the mushrooms, bonnets and rabbits all meant. Is the plight of the girls symbolic of refugees in detention in Australia I’m not skilled that that kind of analysis, but I do wonder if the rabbits symbolised the girls. Yolanda takes them and kills them, the unnamed boss takes the girls and harms them. Yet Yolanda uses the rabbits to make shoes, fur and even a toy –does this mean that the girls will come out different and stronger? I don’t know. I think that’s one of the more intriguing parts of the story, speculating on the deeper meaning. That means of course that readers will have a field day with the ending – I think I came out even more cynical after reading the harrowing story before it.
The Natural Way of Things is a book to make you question how we label and treat others. Even considering the title after finishing this makes me wonder – who decides the natural way and should we accept it?