IT IS ALMOST impossible to believe: ten young women, all of them aged under twenty-five, held captive because of their past sexual transgressions. Can this be happening? In twenty-first-century Australia? This is the world into which you step when you open The Natural Way of Things.
The women in Charlotte Wood’s powerful and distinctive novel are prisoners in an imaginative landscape that we know only as a remote location somewhere in inland Australia. It is not a place, or a literature, that we have encountered before. There is nothing like it in our literary past. We have books about prisons and prisoners, including a whole literature on convict women, those poor souls maligned as ‘damned whores’ by Lieutenant Ralph Clark of the First Fleet. We have ‘The Drover’s Wife’ by Henry Lawson and ‘The Chosen Vessel’ by Barbara Baynton depicting the terrors of women alone in the late nineteenth-century bush. More recently, we have had Helen Garner’s The First Stone (Pan Macmillan, 1995) Anna Krien’s Night Games (Black Inc., 2013), to name just two standout books that try to unravel contested stories of sexual misadventure. But we have never before had a book like this, that places women who have been abused and shamed for their sexual conduct into a form of detention that is both physical and, we soon learn, psychological.
The Natural Way of Things is fiction, but it draws quite explicitly on a number of recent and well-known incidents where women were publicly excoriated, shamed or even killed for their sexual transgressions. There’s the woman raped by a gang of men and left for dead on the cruise ship; the woman who accused a well-known CEO of sexual harassment; the woman who was raped by a football team. These women are in Wood’s novel, as are seven others whose ‘cases’ are also instantly recognisable. There’s the intern who had an affair with a Cabinet minister (who gave her a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass – just as President Clinton did with White House intern Monica Lewinsky) and was then brutally dismissed from her job; the woman who got too close to the Cardinal; the woman who was sexually abused by her army superiors; and other, all-too-familiar examples of women becoming ensnared with men, with terrible consequences for themselves (but not for the men).
These ten young women find themselves prisoners on a rundown property, where their clothes are taken from them and their hair is shorn. They are forced to wear rough, Amish-like calico garments; heavy, foot-punishing boots; and, reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (McClelland & Stewart, 1985), restrictive bonnets that hide their faces from each other and allow no peripheral vision. They have arrived at the property drugged, with no memory of how they were captured. Two unlikely young men – one a dreadlocked stoner, the other a sadistic brute – are their captors. A strange young woman, who is supposedly a nurse, is there to assist. But there seem to be no medical supplies and when, on the first day, the brute hits one of the women so hard he breaks her jaw, she receives no medical attention whatsoever.
The women are confused and frightened; they have no idea where they are or why they are there. ‘I need to know where I am,’ cries Verla, the former intern, on that first day.
‘Oh, sweetie,’ says the brute. ‘You need to know what you are.’ (p. 18)
They are sluts, slags, whores, tramps, dogs, molls, pigs, boxes, gangbangers. These are their common denominators. And that, they come to learn, is why they are there.
They are chained together and marched forcibly for several hours to be shown the electric fence that guarantees they cannot escape. Then they are marched back to the kennel-like boxes where each girl is to sleep, given a vomitory substance as a meal and then left to confront the bleak and brutal place they have ended up in.
Over the coming months, they are forced to labour, using primitive tools and just their hands, building a road that, they dare to hope, might be their way out of this place. They have no soap or shampoo or sanitary goods. They soon become unkempt, hairy, rough-skinned and – yes – dirty. They are now dirty sluts. Just like everyone said.
We do not learn who has captured these women or why they are being held. The prison is primitive. There are no computers, which is perhaps just as well because after a few days the power goes off. But not on the fence – it must have its own source of electricity. This is neither a conventional prison nor a concentration camp. We have to go to the literature of the Gulag – to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Yevgenia Ginzburg, for instance – to encounter people confined to such harsh remote places, not because they have committed any crime but because they have defied the dominant ideology of their society.
What is the purpose of the enslavement of these women? Their punishment is to be where they are, plus the occasional beating, but they are not raped or tortured. They are not being re-educated. This is no cultural revolution. There is nothing for them to read or watch or listen to. Their being locked up can’t be to warn or instruct others, since no one seems to know they are there.
With no media or books or other such forms of escapism, distraction or illumination, the girls have only their own devices (a word which in this world has no modern, technological meaning) – and each other. They can plot or dream or reminisce or, like Yolanda, the most beautiful of them all, and the most famous as her face was on television after the incident with the footballers, they can reinvent themselves.
THERE ARE MANY mysteries to this story, and no logical answer to some of the questions the reader might have. But it doesn’t matter: this is not a detective story – we don’t need to know whodunnit or why. This is a fable or an allegory, a story that reveals truths about the way we Australians in the early twenty-first century think about and treat women.
The most confronting thing about this book, I found, is not the incarceration or the brutality of the way the girls are treated or any of the aspects of their physical confinement. The hardest thing to confront is the prison the girls have constructed for themselves. It is the prison most of them have brought to this place and it is inside their heads. They are prisoners of their sex.
The girls wonder if their disappearance is a national story, perhaps on the nightly news, but they come to realise that girls like them don’t matter. Their families might miss them, but no one else is going to care. In fact, the men who caused their downfall might very well welcome their disappearance. But, they wonder, what if the story was told?
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 itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls, somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves. They lured abduction and abandonment to themselves, they marshalled themselves into this prison where they had made their beds, and now, once more, were lying in them. (p. 176)
That is the way the world tends to respond to sexual violence. The girl was said to have ‘asked for it’ by what she wore, or where she was, or how much she had had to drink. We have constant reminders that what is now called ‘rape culture’ is embedded in our society. Clementine Ford writes about it at length in Fight Like a Girl (Allen & Unwin, 2016). In the United States, what has become known as the Steubenville rape incident is now emblematic of a culture where, as Yolanda comes to understand, women are ‘meat…born to make meat’.
…now it became clear to her that her body and her, Yolanda, were not separable things, and that what she had once thought of as a self did not exist. This was what the footballers in the dark knew, somehow, when they did those things to her. To it. There was no self inside that thing they pawed and thrust and butted at, only fleecy, punishable flesh. (p. 122)
OF THE TEN women in The Natural Way of Things, only three – Yolanda, Verla and Hetty (the Cardinal’s plaything) – understand that they need to flee the prison of their femininity, of their sex. Yolanda escapes into archetype. She becomes the bush woman who traps rabbits to feed the rest of them, but she also skins them and creates clothing. She, the once stunningly beautiful girl, strides the land each day, checking her traps, becoming weather worn and tough enough so that the brute no longer bothers her. Hetty, who had initially thought she could save herself by offering her body to the brute, kills herself on the fence. Verla poisons the brute with a carefully hoarded mushroom, but then wonders what to do with herself.
The other girls cannot escape. They talk of their old clothes, including the sequined boob tube that got Lydia into so much trouble on that cruise ship, and the Chloé boots another bought with her settlement. In their world, the Louboutin shoe, with its spiky, impossibly high heel and blood-red sole, is the Holy Grail. Once, they would have done anything to own a pair – as wittily spoofed by Australian rapper Iggy Azalea in her song ‘Work’:
Several of the girls spend hours detecting and removing any hair that dares to sprout on their once fully waxed figures. They yearn to be reunited with those groomed bodies, and those sexy garments. They don’t see any connection between these obsessions and their imprisonment.
Their jailers are now dead – the nurse of an overdose from a stash of medical supplies that was eventually discovered, the two men murdered – and so the women think, when a bus arrives, that freedom is just a ride away. Perry, the bus driver, ‘steps towards them now, a clutch of the bags in each hand, twirling on their satiny black rope handles. The bags slither expensively against one another’ (p. 303). They contain expensive cosmetics and other accoutrements of femininity. The girls look at them and see ‘a promise, a stirring of something: tenderness, ease, something from the history of love, far beyond this place’ (p. 303) – and how readily they succumb. Only Verla has the wit to be suspicious, to worry what Perry means when he says, ‘You poor, poor girls.’
Yolanda has gone bush and, we can only hope, is hovering near the electric gate that will slide open to let the bus through. Verla is on the bus, but she knows she has to get off. How will she do it? And what will happen to the other girls? The final pages of this book are as tense and exciting as any thriller.
The Natural Way of Things forces us to confront grim truths in the way of the best literature, taking us into tough terrains calmly and boldly, setting everything out, inviting us to follow and learn.
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