For a book with such a pretty cover, The Natural Way Of Things by Charlotte Wood is not a pretty read. In fact, it is probably the last novel you would choose as a relaxing holiday read but it was the book chosen for Fiona’s Wednesday Night Book Club at Avid Reader on 4 November 2015, and one which caused much debate amongst members – so much so that the discussion could have continued for hours.
The Natural Way Of Things is a dystopian novel and the purpose of this genre is to extrapolate elements of contemporary society that can be read as political warnings. The contents of these novels are usually very grim, and do not make for very pleasant reading. Despite this, novelists find them a powerful vehicle to get their messages across to the reading public.
And I agree, who doesn’t remember the phrase “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” from George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm published in 1945? I still remain haunted by the dark themes of a totalitarian society portrayed in Orwell’s later novel 1984.
Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931 which introduced the abolition of natural reproduction. Human embryos are raised artificially in “hatcheries and conditioning centres”. The breeding and development of children predestine them to fit into one of five ranked castes with Greek letter names, from Alpha (the highest) to Epsilon (the lowest) which fulfill different economic roles. More than 50 years later, the Canadian novelist, Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale with an equally dark take on reproduction, in a world where women are categorised “hierarchically according to class status and reproductive capacity” as well as “metonymically colour-coded” according to their function and their labour.
And in more recent years, the dystopian novel has been very popular with readers of Young Adult (YA) fiction with the publication of the such works as The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, Divergent by Veronica Roth, The Maze Runner by James Dashner, and The Giver by Lois Lowry.
I had more of a ‘heads up’ on The Natural Way Of Things than some of my fellow book club members because I had attended the author event (Charlotte Wood in conversation with Kris Olsson) the previous week and knew the inspiration for the novel germinated from the inhumane treatment of teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18 who were sent to The Hay Institution for Girls. This insidious institution operated in the 1960s, and was finally closed in 1974. Charlotte Wood channelled her not insignificant rage at this injustice into her novel, and presents the reader with similar themes in a world set more than 40 years in the future.
These fictional modern day young women share a bond with their real-life 1960s counterparts in that they were all victims of sexual abuse, chose to report it, and were punished for doing so. The characters (Yolanda, Verla, Joy, Barbs, Lydia, Maitlynd, Hettie, Izzy, Rhiannon, and Leandra) are the hapless and easily dispensable players in various tabloid scandals that are unfortunately too familiar: the football team gang bang, the cruise ship sex party, the affair with a politician, the defence force misadventure. However the author, Charlotte Wood, is keen to stress that the novel is a work of ‘art’ itself – and stands alone as a gripping, starkly imaginative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control.
And what a tale it is! The reader is challenged, confronted, and often frustrated, by this gripping fable. We follow these 10 young women who have been through different sexual ordeals but are now dumped on an isolated property behind electric fences in outback Australia guarded by two males (Boncer and Teddy) and their female accomplice and erstwhile ‘nurse’, Nancy.
It is a dark and deeply sinister arrangement organised by Hardings International (a ‘faceless’ global company that deals in incarceration). The tension is palpable and builds to a crescendo as conditions worsen, especially when it becomes apparently clear that the food rations are finite. There is no graphic violence in the novel but the inneundo is that it is never far away.
The reader is active participant in this novel, and is required to accept more than a fair share of ambiguity – why are these women where they are, what is going to happen to them, and who really is the power behind Hardings International? Charlotte Wood cleverly does not ‘end’ the novel but rather issues an invitation to the reader to write their own script as to what will happen to those girls who chose to board the yellow bus and those who do not, and choose a different fate.
The Verdict – the highs and the lows
This book had a polarising effect on the book club with some members giving the book the very low score of “3” – a record all-time low for a book – and others scoring it a “9”,” 91/2″, and a “10” (from me!). Perhaps it was because I was privy to the background of the Hay Institute and made the connection to the universal themes of powerlessness and vulnerability, which really resonated with me, but reading the book made me want to be a better person, and in my own small way help to create a more just society.
Some members felt that girls’ characters were undeveloped and that surely they would have formed a united front against their oppressors, but others reflected on literature that shows how prisoners behave when they become institutionalised, and that the behaviour of the girls in The Natural Way Of Things was very much to type. We reflected on the notion that we like to think we would act with ‘nobility’ in such a situation but no one really knows what their reaction would be under such circumstances.
It was universally agreed that the novel was not misogynist but anti-patriarchal, and our two male members (mature and thoughtful men) were dismayed at the character portrayal of Boncer and Teddy – two truly awful men, and pondered if such men actually existed. And, unfortunately they do – more than one women in the group commented that they “knew a Teddy”.
Many found the language lyrical and beautiful, and I found Charlotte Wood’s references to popular culture (The Bachelor, PerforMAXX) particularly potent. Almost all of the members agreed that Charlotte Wood is a writer of significant talent but some members could not see the point of the novel, and thought the subject matter would be better served in a different format such as non-fiction or memoir.
Disagreement in such matters shows us why a a utopian society is still a distant dream.