Ten young women awake after being drugged and kidnapped, to find themselves prisoners at a remote property somewhere in rural Australia, corralled behind a high electric fence. From the second they arrive they are systematically de-humanized; Shorn of their hair like the sheep that once occupied the run-down sheds, forced to wear old-fashioned Amish style clothing, leashed together, deprived of the most basic sanitation. And all the time subject to misogynistic rants and abuse by two enforcers the brutish Boncer and Teddy the narcissistic yoga addict.
The girls have little in common except that they have been the subject of some form of public scandal that resonates with the reader: a reality show contestant revealed to have been having sex with the director, the mistress of a married politician, the girlfriend of a footie player who drunkenly has gang sex with his teammates. Neither they, nor the reader, know who is behind their incarceration or how long they are to be held. Some do not even know how they came to be at the property. The way in which each adapts to the hellish existence and the interaction between them enhances the story’s progression. But, deliberately, all except two, Yolanda and Verla who provide the narration, remain sketches.
Yolanda originally the one seen as the most sexually desirable sheds her femininity, turning hunter when the food begins to run out finding escape by being absorbed into nature: At night she dreamed herself with claws, digging a burrow. Tunnelling out under the fence into the teeming bush. Not returning to her old life, never back there, but inwards, downwards, running on all fours, smelling the grass and the earth as familiar as her own body. She dreamed of an animal freedom.
And Verla through whom we see best the emotional and psychological response both to confinement. It is through her eyes that we see some of the most challenging analysis of the pendulum swings of gender versus sexuality in society.
Woods’ portrayal of the stark beauty of rural Australia, which heavily uses imagery (such as the mysterious white horse) and allusion, is powerful and sensual. Even at its most brutal there’s something intensely lyrical about her writing.
Inevitably there have been comparisons with the Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale and William Golding Lord of the Flies, and certainly there are occasional echoes of both (the ‘sacrifice’ of Hetty). But it also has a unique power of its own that makes the reader re-assess common concepts of sexuality and femininity. Could it really be that the girls are in the predicament because of situations where female sexuality had become inconvenient to male society?
“What would people in their old lives be saying about these girls? Would they be called missing? … 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 centre, as if womanhood were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.”
I didn’t have trouble ignoring some of the incongruities (like the giant electric fence encompassing the enormous property) although I admit I struggled more with the fact that ten girls didn’t at least try to overpower the two men. But overall The Natural Way of Things is a powerful and challenging book. And the ending (which I’m not going to give away) left a deliciously lingering air of menace, and hope.
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood is published by Allen & Unwin. It is a finalist in the 2016 Victorial Premier’s Award for fiction. Her other books include Animal People, Pieces of a Girl and Love & Hunger.