Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 7, 2016

Combined reviews: The Natural Way of Things, by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of ThingsI am so very late to the party with this one that I really can’t think of anything original to say about Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things.  As others have said, it’s a major departure in style from her previous sharp and witty observations of human frailty, and from her focus on characterisation in novels of contemporary realism.  The Natural Way of Things is an angry book, with little place for subtle explorations of human frailty.  It draws on contemporary events to show how vulnerable women are to misogyny,  and it’s unforgiving.

It’s not a book to discuss without giving away spoilers, so for those who haven’t come across it yet, this is the blurb:

Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in an abandoned property in the middle of a desert in a story of two friends, sisterly love and courage – a gripping, starkly imaginative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control, and of what it means to hunt and be hunted.

Strangers to each other, they have no idea where they are or how they came to be there with eight other girls, forced to wear strange uniforms, their heads shaved, guarded by two inept yet vicious armed jailers and a ‘nurse’. The girls all have something in common, but what is it? What crime has brought them here from the city? Who is the mysterious security company responsible for this desolate place with its brutal rules, its total isolation from the contemporary world? Doing hard labour under a sweltering sun, the prisoners soon learn what links them: in each girl’s past is a sexual scandal with a powerful man. They pray for rescue – but when the food starts running out it becomes clear that the jailers have also become the jailed. The girls can only rescue themselves.

I have read and enjoyed Wood’s three previous novels: The Submerged Cathedral, (2004); The Children (2007) and Animal People, (2011) (click the links to Kim’s review at Reading Matters and to mine) but I think if I had read The Natural Way of Things first, Wood might not have her place in my list of favourite authors to read.  It’s very bleak, and I’m not keen on dystopias at the best of times.   While the novel is unrelenting in the representation of men who hate women and have the power to control them and punish them, it also confronts the way these women’s own beliefs about what women are, make them their own worst enemies.  Their captivity is not the catalyst for a powerful sisterhood like that of the women held in Japanese POW camps in On Radji Beach.  I found it depressing that one of the captured women mourned the loss of a pair of high heels.  In a novel that demands suspension of disbelief over and over again, should I have found it convincing that these brutalised women would be seduced by handbags?  I mean, I know it’s an allegory, but still …

There are reviews of this book everywhere:

I think some of my other blogging friends have reviewed it too, but my searches came up blank.

This is a good opportunity to remind readers about Catherine Harris’s terrific book The Family Men in which she tackles the ugly celebrity culture that protects appalling behaviour by high profile sportsmen.  It’s a nuanced and all-too-credible treatment of corporate power and the vulnerability of the young women who are its playthings.

Update: 20/4/16

To no one’s surprise, The Natural Way of Things was awarded the 2016 Stella Prize.

Author: Charlotte Wood
Title: The Natural Way of Things
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2015
ISBN:  9781760111236
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

PS In the wake of the 2015 launch of Change the story: A shared framework for the primary prevention of violence against women and their children in Australia, bloggers like me received a press release asking us to include the following tagline to any relevant coverage of sexual assault, domestic and family violence.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa, I too was very disappointed in this book. It was bleak and a flat read. I should have sympathised with the characters but I had no belief in them.

    • Compared to Wood’s other books, it feels like a book written in haste and in anger, one which has appealed to its loudest supporters because of its agenda rather than its intrinsic qualities. IMO Wood has been a better, more nuanced writer than this book suggests.

  2. I was encouraged by all the good reviews to buy it and there it sits unread on the TBR shelf. Might now move it over to the books I bought for gifts shelf.

    • LOL Now I’ll be in trouble for discouraging blokes from reading it…

  3. I have been looking forward to this one, but it sounds as if I could choose any of her books and be happy. I’ve not heard of her others. On the other hand, I don’t mind bleak subjects, so I’m stil just as curious about this one!

    • Indeed yes, do not let me put you off Wood, her writing can be exquisite and very engaging. Good on her for trying something new, I admire writers who do this, but as MST says below, some of us found this one disappointing.

  4. I didn’t enjoy it either, and struggled to finish it. While I completely support the feminist message, this story was too didactic and the characters didn’t come alive for me.

    • I haven’t read enough dystopias really to know, but I think that flat characterisation and stereotyping might go with the genre. But then again, the characterisation in Jane Rawson’s Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, and Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale defies that.
      But yes, it is heavy-handed…

  5. I finished this in the wee hours of this morning. I can’t quite figure out what to make of it but I do keep thinking about it and I think that is a good thing. Perhaps the comment by MST about it being didactic is true to form. Food for thought. I’m now heading off to read some other reviews.

  6. Interesting… I expected to be disappointed by this one because I’d heard so many great things so I put off reading it for months and months (I bought a copy in Oz during my travels last October) but I really enjoyed it. I don’t think it’s heavy handed at all; it’s still written in that same lush prose as her earlier novels, it’s just the subject matter / genre that is different. I liked the way it tapped into a vein of contemporary society where sex shaming is so very rampant (I’d say it’s out of control in the UK) but didn’t hit you over the head with a feminist rant; indeed, not all the women come off very well…

    • *snap* I had it for ages too, and kept putting off reading it too. It was over-hyped from the start.
      I think you do have to buy into the angst about shaming with this book, and maybe that’s partly what I didn’t like, it felt manipulative, imposing a kind of angry politics on its readers.

  7. […] (ANZLitLovers) has also read it and has posted her comments plus links to other […]

  8. […] for this post is a review of Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things by Lisa at ANZLitLovers (here) a couple of weeks ago where three things caught my attention. Firstly, as she writes, there have […]

  9. […] Forever Young, Steven Carroll, see my review The Life of Houses, Lisa Gorton, see my review The World Repair Video Game, David Ireland AM (I wanted this, but it was a limited edition and too expensive for my budget) Quicksand, Steve Toltz, see my review The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood, see combined reviews   […]

  10. […] Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin) Lisa Hill’s Review (with links to numerous other reviews) –  my review […]

  11. […] Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things, see combined reviews […]

  12. […] The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood, Allen & Unwin, 2015, see combined reviews   […]

  13. I am only half way through it and quite puzzled by the accolades it has supposedly received. Keeping an open mind of course and will suspend judgement until the end.

    • It’s quite odd: the longer it’s been since I read it, the more I dislike it. I only seem to remember the tone of angry victimhood, I can’t remember any of the ‘lush prose’ that Kim mentions above.
      And yet with Wood’s other books, I have fond memories of this or that character or the clever way she skewers contemporary life.
      Maybe it’s just because I dislike gender wars…

  14. […] “The Natural Way of Things” by Charlotte Wood, see combined reviews […]


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