TRIGGER WARNING: This book contains depictions of violence & sexual assault – as these are prominent themes within the novel they will be discussed in the following review.
At first I lay comfortably back on my pillows, casually flicking through the pages. As I continued to read I felt my frown-lines deepening as my brain hummed and my stomach churned. Eventually, I ended up sprawled at the end of my bed on my tummy, chewing on my lower lip and flipping pages incessantly. Once I had read the last line, and re-read it a couple of times, I plopped the book down on my blue bedspread and rolled onto my back, staring up at the ceiling-fan in frustration. Charlotte Wood, did you really have to do that to me?!
I read three quarters of this book in one day; it was captivating. It’s been a few days now since I finished reading it, and I still have a knot in my stomach. And I’ll tell you why. The Natural Way of Things is a book that is both enlightening and disturbing. What makes it so disturbing is the fact that it all just hits so close to home.
We live in a society where sexual harassment and assault are fairly common. A lot of this goes unreported and often the victim is blamed for something that is not their fault. Victim blaming is awful, yet it occurs amongst the friends and family of victims, as well as within the police force and within a political framework as well. Victims of rape are often asked, ‘what were you wearing?’, ‘how short was your skirt?’, ‘could you have done anything to prevent this situation?’ It is absolutely absurd; the only person who should be blamed for an assault is the person who chose to commit the assault.
Charlotte Wood has taken the idea of victim blaming on-board and reworked it into a chilling story… but the real power comes from the fact that this fictional novel is not too far-removed from the truth.
Verla Learmont and Yolanda Kovacs wake up, groggy from drugs and finding themselves imprisoned. Their heads are shaved and they are forced into Amish-like clothing, their vision restricted by large bonnets and their feet destroyed in heavy footwear. With eight other girls, they are leashed to their captors and forced to march under the sun, forced into hard-labour, and forced to sleep, chained, in dog-houses.
Why are they here? What could they have possibly done to deserve this? When Verla demands to know where she is, her male captor responds,
‘Oh, sweetie. You need to know what you are.’
Soon it is obvious that the girls all have one connection; they have all been involved in high-profile sexual scandals. And this seems to be the reason why they are being held captive.
‘In the days to come she will learn what she is, what they all are. That they are the minister’s-little-travel-tramp and that Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are the pigs-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 f*king fat slag’s mouth shut.’
The girls are victims of rape, they are mistresses, they are beautiful, they are the girls who experimented a ‘little too much’ in the eyes of society. They recognise each other from the television and from the news reports; they are the girls who have been brave enough to speak out. They are the victims who have been shunned from society, swept under the mat, for causing too much trouble. These women, whose sexuality has become an inconvenience for powerful men, have been removed from society.
Charlotte has absorbed and scrutinised rape culture, she has breathed in coverage of sexual assaults and the onslaught of victim-blaming, and she has exhaled her anger onto the page in this dystopian tale. This book, although the writing is carefully crafted and beautiful, is not easy-reading. I felt sick a lot of the time while reading this. Perhaps it was the themes, the metaphors, the descriptions of the inhumane ways humans can treat each other, the constant fear for the girls, or maybe just the calm anger that flowed like poison through every sentence. It was spine-chilling.
The novel contains and expresses layers upon layers of misogyny and the effects this has on all of us. It is revealed that some of the women are every bit as sexist and masculinist as the men. Some of them perpetuate sexism as much as their captors do. Even the two male guards, Boncer and Teddy, aren’t safe from the effects of misogyny. They too, find themselves trapped within the prison – with no power, diminishing food supplies, and no way out.
One thing I wished for in the novel was a little more info about the male characters. It would have been interesting to see how the men in this novel became so enveloped in misogyny.
The men treat their prisoners with unreasonable, unexplained cruelty – desperately attempting to maintain their control. But now, the women’s survival instincts begin to kick in and the power dynamics change… things get really interesting.
The Natural Way of Things is told from the perspective of Verla and Yolanda who both perceive themselves to be ‘better’ than the other women. Verla is an educated woman, career focussed and savvy, but unfortunately swept up in a love-affair with the politician she worked under – the same politician who organised to have her removed from society once the news of their affair became public. Yolanda is downright gorgeous; she is the sexy girlfriend of the footballer who gang-raped her with his football buddies, the same boyfriend orchestrates her disappearance, her continued humiliation and pain.
The women all react differently to their situation. Some of the girls use tweezers to pluck their eyebrows, their arm hair, their leg hair, their pubes – desperately trying to maintain their ‘femininity’. Some of them believe they are in a game show,
‘Like The Bachelor, but more edgy’.
Of all the women, Yolanda undergoes the most radical transformation. As a beautiful woman, her life has constantly been plagued with sexual harassment – she is is used to being cat-called, to being stared at, to being touched by strangers. She is targeted by one of the guards, and feels his constant gaze and knows it is only a matter of time before he attacks her. Yolanda decides that she needs to shed her old self, the only way to protect herself is to cast off her femininity. She becomes one with the land, embracing an animalistic nature, an animalistic freedom. Can women take on traditionally male hunter-gatherer roles? Yolanda does. Instead of being the hunted creature, Yolanda becomes the hunter.
Verla, on the other hand, has a dream of a white horse. She believes that the horse is real, and she insists that it is coming to rescue her. This metaphor runs throughout the story. I believe it represents her belief that because she is loved by the men in her life, because she is ‘important’, she will be rescued by a ‘knight in shining armour’. I think this idea is really important, because it is what all girls are taught from an early age; your prince will rescue you, he will protect you and he will provide for you. In reality, Verla’s ‘prince’ never really loved her, and he has condemned her to this fate. Through recollecting poetry read to her by her lover, she begins to understand that she meant nothing to him.
‘You can do nothing and be nothing but what I will infold you’.
She realises that only she can save herself. Once she realises that he is not coming for her, she changes. Her worldview shifts and she realises the outside world is not the fairytale she always believed in.
As the women in the story strengthen, gaining courage and working together, they wonder what people in the ‘outside world’ would think of them now. Following this is my favourite segment of the book.
‘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 such 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.’
This little paragraph sums everything up. It sums up the victim blaming, the shaming, the epidemic of sexual assault and harassment. It sums up the fact that womanhood is always at the centre of these things, and begs the question: why? Why do we so often blame women for what others choose to do to them? This book is provocative for a reason. This book is designed to make you feel uneasy, to make you feel sick to your stomach.
For me, when I read this, the worst part was the fact that it’s not implausible. In the past, women who have had babies out of wedlock were sent away from friends and family. Even now, in some countries, women are punished for being raped by being stoned to death. So then, if powerful men such as politicians had the opportunity to hide away those who threatened their social standing, what would they do? Yes, it’s an extreme example, and yes, it’s frightening. That’s the point; rape culture, victim blaming… they are frightening things. But they are happening. And they need to be discussed and scrutinised. Our society needs to reflect on itself, on its values. We need to stop shaming women (and men!) who are violated by someone else. Rape is never the victims fault.
I have never read something quite like this. It made me feel vulnerable but empowered at the same time. It made me feel ferociously angry and hopeless all at once. This book is uncomfortable, but it is also a vital commentary on the stigma around sexual assault.
I will never forget this book.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this book! Please feel free to talk about the novel or ask any questions in the comments section below.