The hor­rors of misog­yny taken to ex­tremes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Por­tia Lind­say is a free­lance writer and editor.

Por­tia Lind­say The Nat­u­ral Way of Things By Char­lotte Wood Allen & Unwin, 320pp, $29.99

Char­lotte Wood’s The Nat­u­ral Way of Things is a pow­er­ful story of misog­yny and cor­po­rate con­trol taken to dis­turb­ing ex­tremes. The Syd­ney writer’s sear­ing ex­plo­ration of the most fright­en­ing el­e­ments of con­tem­po­rary gen­der re­la­tions is a con­fronting and blaz­ing read.

We live in a so­ci­ety where #TheBach­e­lorAU regularly trends on Twit­ter and de­light­fully snarky online re­caps call the bach­e­lorette man­sion ‘‘Girl Prison’’ (a term that rings hor­ri­fy­ingly true in Wood’s novel); where women and girls who are the vic­tims of sex­ual ha­rass­ment and as­sault are still rou­tinely dis­be­lieved and slut­shamed; and where women die at the hands of men they know at alarm­ing rates.

Wood has scru­ti­nised this cul­ture with a mix­ture of sen­si­tiv­ity and dis­gust, chan­nelling her ob­ser­va­tions and cri­tiques into a novel that asks the clas­sic dystopian ques­tion: What’s the worst that could hap­pen?

Yolanda and Verla wake up groggy af­ter be­ing drugged. At first it ap­pears they are in some kind of asy­lum, as Yolanda de­cides: ‘‘She knew she was not mad, but all lu­natics thought that.’’ It quickly be­comes ap­par­ent that some­thing much more sin­is­ter is go­ing on. They soon find them­selves in the com­pany of other young fe­male cap­tives and the men who guard them, on a rough and re­mote prop­erty.

Verla’s con­fu­sion prompts one of the more mem­o­rable ex­changes early in the nar­ra­tive: ‘‘I need to know where I am.’’ The odi­ous Bon­cer re­sponds: ‘‘ Oh sweetie. You need to learn what you are.’’

It turns out that the pris­on­ers all have in com­mon some kind of public sex scan­dal. The sit­u­a­tion also rapidly goes from bad to worse: they are threat­ened, de­graded, vi­o­lated and worked to the bone. Their bod­ies al­ter un­der the harsh con­di­tions of forced labour, ex­po­sure, coarse fab­rics and malnutrition. Wood does an ex­quis­ite job of evok­ing the hor­ror of the sit­u­a­tion — the con­fu­sion, ex­haus­tion and fear — and does not shy away from the worst of the re­al­i­sa­tions and treat­ment.

A de­based Verla re­calls that ini­tial ex­change as she puts the pieces to­gether: ‘‘Bon­cer’s words re­turn. In the days to come she will learn what she is, what they all are. That they are the min­is­ter’s-lit­tle-travel-tramp and that-Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll­num­ber-twelve and bo­gan-gold-dig­ger-gang­bang-slut. They are what hap­pens when you don’t keep your f..king fat slag’s mouth shut.’’

The guards grad­u­ally re­alise that their fate is closely tied to that of their cap­tives. As that ac­claimed fem­i­nist film Mad Max: Fury Road — also with the cap­tiv­ity and abuse of young women as a core con­cern — spells out, pa­tri­ar­chal op­pres­sion also works against the young men fight­ing to main­tain it.

But even in the face of their aban­don­ment by the sys­tem, the men strug­gle to con­trol their cap­tives. Bon­cer is an un­abashed misog­y­nist, in­spir­ing con­stant fear of abuse, rape and vi­o­lence, wield­ing his power with rel­ish. Teddy, a yoga-prac­tis­ing hip­pie, is a more nu­anced char­ac­ter, but an im­por­tant rep­re­sen­ta­tion of con­fused and con­flicted misog­yny. ‘‘ A look of sym­pa­thy flashes across Teddy’s face, but he re­cov­ers … Verla feels the room con­tract with fear: Bon­cer is back.’’

Bon­cer may in­spire out-and-out fear, but the way Teddy talks about his ex-girl­friend — in­deed all women — is no less prob­lem­atic. Wood de­picts the com­plex ways in which ha­tred, and fear, of women is dis­played. Much like Anna Krien’s non­fic­tion book Night Games, about rape cul­ture in Aus­tralian football, Wood’s novel is con­fronting but es­sen­tial read­ing.

Amid these aw­ful dis­plays of in­sti­tu­tion­alised misog­yny — women liv­ing in ken­nels, be­ing forced to wear vi­sion-ob­scur­ing bon­nets — an un­likely friend­ship grows. Yolanda and Verla both see them­selves as out­siders, su­pe­rior to the oth­ers. They form an al­most word­less bond, and as the sys­tem con­trol­ling what could be called a ‘‘girl prison’’ col­lapses, they emerge as lead­ers. Yolanda’s con­nec­tion to the land saves them, and an un­easy power dy­namic emerges as Bon­cer grap­ples with her grow­ing strength. This strength re­sides in be­com­ing in­creas­ingly wild — there’s free­dom and power in con­nect­ing more strongly with the land than with so­ci­ety; and in­deed there are links be­tween the coloni­sa­tion of the fe­male body and that of Aus­tralia and its orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants.

As the hor­ror that Wood so vividly es­tab­lishes starts to col­lapse in on it­self, the friend­ship be­tween Yolanda and Verla pro­vides an an­chor amid the in­creas­ingly Lord of the Fliesesque hor­ror. Wood’s novel lays bare the rape cul­ture and slut-sham­ing as­so­ci­ated with con­tem­po­rary misog­yny and the tyranny of cor­po­rate con­trol over con­sumers and work­ers, as this en­slaved crew labours to build a road for an un­known cor­po­rate over­lord. This timely nar­ra­tive demon­strates the hunger for sur­vival and ca­pac­ity for es­cape from these shack­les in the fierce bush that might rep­re­sent a sort of free­dom for those suf­fi­ciently con­nected to it.

Wood, whose pre­vi­ous novel was the Miles Franklin short­listed An­i­mal Peo­ple, care­fully cul­ti­vates in­deli­ble im­ages of the women, the com­pound and in­creas­ingly grotesque scenes — such as the cre­ation of a Franken-doll from hair and rab­bit furs, for in­stance. The Nat­u­ral Way of Things is a novel to pro­voke thought, con­ver­sa­tion, dis­gust, anger and con­cern, a work that will haunt the reader with its po­etry and the stark truths buried within Wood’s bril­liant ex­plo­ration of a toxic cul­ture in ex­tremis.

Char­lotte Wood evokes pow­er­ful im­ages

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