The horrors of misogyny taken to extremes
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