The Natural Way of Things
Ten young women wake from a drugged sleep to find themselves in a ramshackle compound somewhere in the outback: a scattering of buildings, scrubby bush and dry earth surrounded by a massive electrified fence. They aren’t sure how they got there, but soon realise that they have something in common: they have all been involved in a public sex scandal and have all made enemies of powerful men.
It isn’t hard to imagine that such men, when caught in the glare of a sex scandal, must long for their female accusers to simply disappear. To stop talking, stop accusing, stop existing. In her riveting new novel, The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood makes that longing chillingly manifest.
The term “sex scandal” is a tepid euphemism for what these women have experienced. They carry stories of rape and assault, of betrayal and humiliation, stories that will seem uncomfortably familiar to anyone who follows the news.
The women are guarded by three hirelings, cruel and incompetent by turns, who revel in their despotic rule over this desolate kingdom. But it’s clear they are taking orders from someone or something much higher up. When the orders, and then food and electricity, stop arriving, captives and captors alike face a grim struggle for survival.
The Natural Way of Things is the kind of book you inhale in a sitting. It leaves you woozy and disoriented, surprised to find yourself in mundane surroundings rather than sweltering in the desert heat. The scope of the novel is narrow, which is all for the better. Wood doesn’t get bogged down in the machinations of how these women have been made to disappear or who is behind it all. That is almost beside the point – no woman needs to be persuaded of the extraordinary lengths men will go to in order to protect their power.
With its stark prose and unrelenting pace, the novel portrays a world created by the cruelty of men, but governed by the resilience and ingenuity of women. Which is not to say it pushes any glib female-empowerment message – it’s far too strange and complex a work for that. Wood’s skill is to write women who are, resolutely, individuals, with all the strengths and flaws that this entails, and place them in a story that will leave readers gasping. DV
Allen & Unwin, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2015 as "Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things". Subscribe here.