Charlotte Wood:The Natural Way of Things

by Jennifer Bryce

This book won the 2016 Stellar Prize for women’s writing. The language is masterful, conveying a pent up, simmering anger towards misogyny that is rife in our present society. Through the book we suffer the experiences of ten young women – some still in their teens –who come to from a drugged state and find themselves in a horrifying captivity. The story is told from the viewpoint of two of these young women, Yolanda and Verla.  In some ways the prison – a kind of run-down remote sheep station – is timeless. The girls are forced to wear scratchy uniforms and have their hair shaved like women in 19th century prisons. Yet they are contained by a high and powerful electric fence. Along with Yolanda and Verla, it takes some time for the reader to realise why the girls have been imprisoned. But we come to realise that each has been involved in some kind of sexual misadventure – scandals involving powerful men, footballers, a politician; the kinds of situations where the victim is accused of being the perpetrator. The novel has been labelled dystopian. How plausible is it that in today’s world, Hardings International Agency might run such a prison to remove women whose presence is an inconvenience (the politician, for example does not want his wife, or his electors to find out about the affair)? Force the women into hard labour, situate them in a place that is completely removed from any form of communication, feed them nothing but watery powdered food. What happens?

I do not see this as any kind of fantasy novel although some aspects are implausible.  The two guards seem to be imprisoned too. Supplies run out (and the electricity goes off, though not the electricity for the fence) but Boncer and Ted can do nothing about it. A pathetic woman, Nancy, who is supposed to be a kind of nurse, is almost as much a captive as the girls. Ultimately the girls kill their two captors, but this doesn’t mean they can escape through the fence. And prior to this they offer up (or force to submit) one of their own as a ‘sacrifice’ to Boncer’s sexual needs. There is no sense of sisterly bonding. Hetty waits ‘lumpish and squinting’ to face her ordeal – which ultimately leads to her suiciding by touching the fence.

For Yolanda and Verla there is some kind of return to the ‘natural way’, where Yolanda gradually, almost metamorphoses into a rabbit and Verla has a kind of obsession (not an addiction) with mushrooms. These women will not return to their former world or their former selves. Whereas – implausibly again – after months of captivity and after their captors have been killed, a bus comes to collect the remaining girls and – an overwhelming cynicism here – they delight in the expensive department store sample bags that are distributed to them. The bus takes them through the electric fence’s gate (and Yolanda and Verla slip through too), but where will it take the girls?  ‘The girls . . .burrow back into their treasures, not caring, not seeing that the bus turns west, not east.’ [page 309] And when the bus driver says, You poor girls. He ‘did not mean what had happened to them back there. He meant what was to come.’ [page 309]