This book has been on my list since it won the Stella Prize in 2016, and thanks to AusReading Month–hosted by Brona@BronasBooks–I finally read it.
The Natural Way of Things was inspired by a documentary the author watched about The Hay Institution for Girls: ten women were taken there and brutalized for being the “ten worst girls in the state.” Wood says, “many of the women had ended up in the Hay because they were victims of sexual abuse and had spoken up about what had happened to them.” (Source)
Knowing this connection with true events makes the book that much more powerful.
Ten women have been stolen from their lives, brought to an isolated spot somewhere in the Australian outback. They don’t know why, they don’t know where, they don’t know what’s going to happen, and they don’t know for how long. But they soon learn that they are all connected to sex scandals and that they are hated.
What would people in their old lives be saying about these girls? Would they be called ‘missing?’ Would some documentary program on TV that nobody watched, or one of those thin newspapers nobody read, somehow connect their cases, find the thread to make them a story? The Lost Girls, they would be called. Would it be said they ‘disappeared,’ ‘were lost’? Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the center, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves. They lured abduction and abandonment to themselves, they marshaled themselves into this prison where they had made their beds, and now, once more, were lying in them.
Their captors are nasty and brutal, and the hard labour intense. Some of the women dream of escape and violence toward their captors. But, despite the fact that the women far outnumber the men, they learn to keep silent and do their work. But when time stretches on and on, and it becomes apparent no one is coming to rescue them or bring more supplies, the women realize something needs to change or they will starve.
Every now and then Verla imagines her old self coming across this scene, across her own present self: her bony ribs, her matted hair, her coated teeth. The filthy greasy calico dress, something out of the nineteenth century. The bucket of rabbit heads beside her: staring eyes, stiff ears, the gory ragged hems of their necks. Her easy familiarity with all these things, as if she was born to this handling of little bodies like slippery new babies, flipping and turning the creatures as casually as the folding of pillowslips. The nimble plucking out of heart and liver and guts.
The Natural Way of Things has been called “The Handmaid’s Tale of our age.” I don’t suppose it’s because the stories are similar – but more because they are both strong “speculative fiction” with themes of patriarchy and misogyny.
Both novels create a world in which there are very few people you can trust; you have to watch what you say and do, and to whom you say and do it. Not only are the men untrustworthy, but many of the women as well – some still trying to gain favour with their captors in any way they can, thereby perpetuating the patriarchy.
The complexity of Wood’s characters and their circumstances make this a suspenseful and compulsive read.
Can anyone recommend any other books by Charlotte Wood?
What other books have you read that have been compared to The Handmaid’s Tale?