The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

Here’s one to put on your radar: Char­lotte Wood’s new novel The Nat­u­ral Way of Things, to be pub­lished by Allen & Unwin on Septem­ber 23. It’s rare to pick up a novel and from the open­ing pages be not only gripped by the story on the page but also by the keen­ness of the in­tel­li­gence and au­dac­ity of the imag­i­na­tion at work. More than that, this is a work of fic­tion un­like most, one that will have peo­ple reach­ing for com­par­isons in an at­tempt to iden­tify it. The pub­lic­ity ma­te­rial men­tions The Lord of the Flies and Mar­garet At­wood’s The Hand­maid’s Tale, and I can see why, but other works came to my mind. First, though, that dreaded (by au­thors) ques­tion: what is The Nat­u­ral Or­der of Things about? It’s such a con­stantly sur­pris­ing, ex­pec­ta­tion-de­fy­ing story that I don’t want to re­veal too much, but the set-up is this: 10 young women, drugged and kid­napped, are im­pris­oned in an out­back camp, sur­rounded by an elec­tric fence. Their heads are shorn and they are dressed in rough tu­nics and un­com­fort­able boots, “stupid Amish clothes”, as one puts it. They are poorly fed, leashed to­gether and set to back­break­ing labour. Their over­seers are two young men, sneer­ingly misog­y­nis­tic and po­ten­tially vi­o­lent, but it’s clear they are mere jail­ers, not the ar­chi­tects of what­ever de­ranged de­sign this is. There is a chill­ing mo­ment when one of the women says, “I need to know where I am” and one of the men replies: “Oh, sweetie. You need to know what you are.’’ It soon be­comes clear that each of the women has been in­volved in the sort of sex­ual scan­dal that makes head­lines: the football team gang bang, the cruise ship sex party, the af­fair with a politi­cian.

What a set-up! The reader is des­per­ate to know why these women are where they are, what is go­ing to hap­pen to them and, most of all, who is be­hind it all. Whether these ques­tions are fully an­swered I will leave read­ers to de­cide, but as some­one who finds the end­ings of many nov­els un­re­al­is­ti­cally neat and tidy I am deeply im­pressed by the bold fi­nal pages of this book. Wood’s con­trol is mas­ter­ful, es­pe­cially in the with­hold­ing of in­for­ma­tion, the in­vi­ta­tion to the reader to be an imag­i­na­tive part­ner in the story. The writ­ers and works that came to my mind, in the way that books speak to each other, in­cluded Kafka — con­sider one of the jail­ers “cast [ing] an ag­grieved look at them, as if they were to blame for the stick in his hand’’ — and Michel Faber’s re­mark­able novel Un­der the Skin. Cooma, NSW-born Wood has an in­tense feel for the nat­u­ral world, which be­comes el­e­men­tal as the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the women, and with their jail­ers, de­vel­ops. Very early on, with one com­ing out of her drugged state, we have this por­tent: “Out­side, a sin­gle white cock­a­too shrieks, closer and louder un­til the sound of it fills the room like mur­der.’’

I won’t be sur­prised if some find this novel con­tro­ver­sial. For while it is an “ex­plo­ration of con­tem­po­rary misog­yny’’, as the jacket blurb says (and as the ti­tle slyly al­ludes), Wood un­der­stands the com­plex­ity of that phrase. For starters, not all misog­y­nists are men. This is one hell of a novel by one of our most orig­i­nal and provoca­tive writ­ers. Arts Min­is­ter Ge­orge Bran­dis, his op­po­si­tion shadow Mark Drey­fus and Greens arts spokesman Adam Brandt are all sched­uled to speak at next week’s Na­tional Writ­ers Congress in Syd­ney. There will be lots of writ­ers there, too, in­clud­ing best­selling Amer­i­can au­thor Scott Turow. De­tails: Depart­ment of clar­i­fi­ca­tions: last week’s re­view of Seneca: A Life was ren­dered in­com­pre­hen­si­ble at sev­eral points. This hap­pened af­ter the edit­ing and proof­read­ing process, and we are look­ing into how. Apolo­gies to read­ers and to re­viewer Si­mon West. The re­view as in­tended is online at www.theaus­

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