Margot McGovern reviews Charlotte Wood’s unnerving tale of women held hostage, The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin, Oct. 2015).
‘I need to know where I am.’
The man stands there, tall and narrow, hand still on the doorknob, surprised. He says, almost in sympathy, ‘Oh, sweetie. You need to know what you are.’
She cannot know where she is, or why, and yet something in her knows her survival depends on this electric white question. What am I?
Yolanda and Verla wake from a drugged sleep to find themselves on a rundown sheep station in the middle of the Australian outback. Their clothes are gone. Their phones are missing. They don’t know why they’ve been brought to this place.
They’re not alone. Ten young women are being held captive on the station—’Hardings International: Dignity and Respect in a Safe Environment’, they learn from the inscription printed on their dinner bowls. They are all strangers, yet they’ve seen each other before—they’re infamous, women made scapegoats in ugly sex crimes.
The have their heads shaved, and are forced to dress in coarse, old fashioned tunics and bonnets that blinker their vision. They spend their days building a road across the station beneath the sweltering mid-summer sun and sleep locked in the shearers’ quarters—cramped, filthy cubbies not fit for dogs. They are marched around the station in a pack, clipped together by leashes, and are kept in line by hired guards: Nancy, Teddy and alpha-thug Boncer.
The station is surrounded by a high electric fence that draws its power from a hidden source; escape is impossible. But when then lights go out in the main house and food supplies begin to dwindle, it becomes clear that the girls’ captors are also prisoners and, little by little, the balance of power begins to shift.
The Natural Way of Things is a visceral, pulsing story that rages against female stereotypes and unleashes a primal scream in the face of misogyny.
Out in the world, Wood’s women have been branded sluts and temptresses, reduced to sexual objects:
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, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.
Their identities have been simplified and sexualised, tailored to fit a convenient narrative. At Hardings, through violence, hard labour, humiliation and starvation, Wood breaks down these identities and forces her women to build themselves anew, sees them reborn in blood and sweat and sinew.
But this isn’t a story of swift revolution. Even when it becomes clear to the women that that faceless ‘Hardings’ isn’t going to show and that Boncer, Teddy and Nancy are trapped, the women are slow to take control. In fact, the only difference is that now instead of Boncer locking the girls in their ‘dogboxes’ at night, it’s the women who turn the keys for fear of Boncer and his… stick.
But the women, it seems, are held captive by something greater than Boncer or Hardings. A trio of girls finds a pair of tweezers. They spend hour after hour plucking hairs from their legs, underarms and groin and tease the other girls for their downy calves, unable to give up this ingrained idea of beauty. When they find their snipped tresses in a bag, they stroke and coddle them like pets. It’s only Yolanda and Verla who grow increasingly willing to shed the expectations and norms of the world they’ve left behind and begin anew.
Theirs is a companionship built on a need for freedom that goes beyond their immediate incarceration, and a stubborn refusal to accept their place and be made victims. They alone among the women truly understand, on some unspoken level, who they are and what has been done to them.
It’s clear almost from the beginning that no search party is coming to rescue the prisoners at Hardings. They have been branded fallen women by the media; they are not missed and not looked for. If they’re going to survive and escape they’re going to have to do it alone.
The Hardings microcosm is brutal, violent, gothic. Wood’s prose is vivid, flecked with gore, and she draws on the sublime terror of the Australian outback to make her reader sweat and squirm as she pulls them into her increasingly primal, animal world to consider what happens when the roles of hunter and hunted are reversed and to confront that basest of questions: what am I?
The Natural Way of Things is a story about female identity and the struggle to assert our true selves when, from birth, we are pushed by large corporations, media, men and even other women towards a preconceived and outmoded idea of what it means to be female. It’s an unsettling, harrowing and deeply compelling read.
Thank you to Allen & Unwin for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
The Natural Way of Things is available through Amazon (Kindle) and Kobo.
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