So I am going to do something a little bit mean today which is also a kind of book lovers public service announcement. I am going to tell you about Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things which is by far one of the best, if not the best, reads of my year and a book which I think every single one of you need to read as soon as you can, if you haven’t already. You see this brings me to the slightly mean part because unless you are in Australia or New Zealand (or are about to visit or have some very kinds friends there as I do) this book won’t reach international waters on this side of the pond/s (UK, US and Canada) until the middle of 2016. I know, I know, I am sorry, I am a tease however if you can get a copy before then do because seriously this is one of those books that consumes you in a rush and spits you out a slightly different person. Yes, it is that blooming marvellous.
Verla follows the girl’s gaze. The floorboards glisten like honey in the sun. She has an impulse to lick them. She understands the fear is the only thing now that could conceivably save her from what is to come. But she is cotton-headed, too slow for that. The drug has dissolved adrenaline so completely it almost seems surprising to be here, with a stranger, in a strange room, wearing this bizarre olden-day costume. She can do nothing to resist it, cannot understand or question. It is a kind of dumb relief.
When Verla and Yolanda find themselves waking up in a strange unknown room, both strangers to each other, dressed in old fashioned uniforms their first instinct is that they are dreaming, then when the realise they are not they panic. Well, as much as anyone can panic when they are groggy from clearly having been drugged. Soon they are taken to another room, where they initially think they will be raped or killed, to have their heads shaved and join a further eight women, all dressed the same and shaven, who too have become captives to a pair of men. Why and for what they do not know, yet.
The confusion and fear at the start is palpable and rather explosive. A lot of novels starting with an opener like this would burn out, that is not the case with The Natural Way of Things. As we follow these women as they are shown around the derelict old building in the vast space in the middle of nowhere surrounded by an electric fence and onto their own cells (which are like kennels) we gain small insights and clues into what it might be that links them and why they might be being subjected to such treatment. Soon it slowly dawns on the women that each of them has been part of a public sex scandal. It also becomes clear that the two men, Boncer and Teddy, are merely acting jailors and a bigger corporation is at the heart of this, the menace of their potential arrival lingers and becomes more torturous than the manual labour and gruel that the women are subjected to whilst they await their fates.
Finally, some instinct rises. She runs her tongue over her teeth, furred like her mind. She hears her own thick voice deep inside her ears when she says, ‘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.’
You might now be thinking that this book is one huge rant or a novel about the wonders of women and the perils of men, neither is true Wood is far too good a writer for that and as we read on more and more layers are revealed. The women are not saintly, in fact we learn there is a woman on the jailers side (the sickly and psychotically sweet ‘Nurse Nancy’ is a true deranged horror), and as we read on Charlotte Wood uses each of the women’s stories and situation before they were captives to discuss choices, responsibilities, victimisation, the abuse of power, societies slant views and much more with a deft touch of fury meeting bafflement, yet without preaching or forcing one message home. True the men centre stage don’t fare well under Wood’s gaze, but they are two pathetic bullying arseholes and in the women’s back stories there are men who are kind and loving and who don’t always do to well out of being so. Yes Charlotte Wood has a point; she is by no means blind sighted by it.
There is more at work than just the debate of misogyny and feminism here too. There is a much deeper question and subject as the novel takes another twist. It is no spoiler to say, as it is in the blurb, that it soon transpires that the women and the jailors are all in a kind of prison as no one is coming, so how will they survive together whilst the food lessens and the prisoners outnumber their captors. In a situation that sees this group of humans returning to their more feral and base levels; who will seek to rule? Who fight or struggle to survive? Who will seek revenge? How far will they go? Through Verla and Yolanda we see how things unfold, both taking very different turns as indeed all the women do (I could talk about Hetty here for ages) but I will say no more for fear of spoilers. I will say that the natural world comes into the fore here and Wood writes about this with a beautiful ruggedness that I loved. Oh and the ending is a brilliant, if unnerving should you read it as I did, question mark which I thought made the book all the more resonant.
My aunty Caroline is a psychologist and she has often said that anger is am emotion that you can, and should, embrace and harness to good use. This is what I feel Charlotte Wood has done with The Natural Way of Things. She has taken all the anger and rage that she feels about the plight of women from all over the world, and indeed the digital world, and harnessed it with precision and subtle prose to create one of the most visceral and fiercely driven novels that I have read in sometime. I read it in one day, in two sittings. She uses a real life case of women captured and imprisoned in the 1960’s and brings it up to date using some examples of recent cases of sex scandals which combined create an incredibly powerful and thought provoking piece of fiction.
In the days to come she will learn what she is, what they all are. That they are the ministers-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.
The Natural Way of Things is a book that will shock many of its readers for all the right reasons. By the end you will be enraged as to why women are still subjected to ‘slut shaming’ and victim blaming if they speak out about something bad? That is the dark root at the heart of this novel from which everything else spirals, only not out of control as scarily you could imagine this happening. That is where the book really bites, its reality and its all too apparent possibility. Shocking all the more because what seems extreme isn’t the more you think about it. This is a fantastically written horrifying, whilst utterly compelling, story that creates a potent set of questions within its readers head and asks you to debate and seek out the answers yourself. I cannot recommend reading it enough.