Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in an abandoned property in the middle of a desert in a story of two friends, sisterly love and courage - a gripping, starkly imaginative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control, and of what it means to hunt and be hunted.
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.'
Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in a broken-down property in the middle of nowhere. Strangers to each other, they have no idea where they are or how they came to be there with eight other girls, forced to wear strange uniforms, their heads shaved, guarded by two inept yet vicious armed jailers and a 'nurse'. The girls all have something in common, but what is it? What crime has brought them here from the city? Who is the mysterious security company responsible for this desolate place with its brutal rules, its total isolation from the contemporary world? Doing hard labour under a sweltering sun, the prisoners soon learn what links them: in each girl's past is a sexual scandal with a powerful man. They pray for rescue - but when the food starts running out it becomes clear that the jailers have also become the jailed. The girls can only rescue themselves.
The Natural Way of Things is a gripping, starkly imaginative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control, and of what it means to hunt and be hunted. Most of all, it is the story of two friends, their sisterly love and courage.
With extraordinary echoes of The Handmaid's Tale and Lord of the Flies, The Natural Way of Things is a compulsively readable, scarifying and deeply moving contemporary novel. It confirms Charlotte Wood's position as one of our most thoughtful, provocative and fearless truth-tellers, as she unflinchingly reveals us and our world to ourselves.
Charlotte Wood is the author of five novels and a book of non-fiction, and editor of The Writer's Room Interviews magazine. Her last novel, Animal People, was longlisted for the Miles Franklin award and her other books have been shortlisted for many prizes including the Miles Franklin and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction. The Australian described her as "one of our finest and most chameleonic writers". She lives in Sydney and is working on her fifth novel.
The Natural Way of Things
Allen and Unwin
Author: Charlotte Wood
Question: What inspired the story of The Natural Way of Things?
Charlotte Wood: It's always hard to explain where the ideas come from, because a book emerges in all kinds of strange ways, but here are some of the things I remember about starting the book.
I heard a radio documentary about the Hay Institution for Girls, a brutal prison in rural NSW, where ten teenage girls were drugged and taken from the Parramatta Girls' Home in the 1960s after they complained and rioted about the conditions they were kept in there. The Hay institution was a 19th century prison for adult men that had been decommissioned on the grounds that it was inhumane, but it was revived for these girls and operated in extreme cruelty from 1961 to 1974. At this place the girls had to march everywhere, were never allowed to look up from the floor or speak to each other, and endured all kinds of other official punishments. But there were also many sadistic unofficial punishments inflicted on them by their jailers.
I wanted to write about what it might feel like to be sent a place like this, although I didn't want to write anything as bleak as what actually went on there. I knew I must unshackle my story from the real place - for various reasons including that many surviving women have written their own testimonies about Hay, and I didn't want to appropriate their experience. So I changed the time frame from the past to the present, and while I kept a few elements like the marching and the silence, my book began taking a different direction altogether.
I began noticing that the societal attitudes that sent the girls to this prison in the 1960s and 70s were not historical. Incidents kept occurring in the contemporary world around me to show young women still being vilified for being sexually active, or for speaking out against sexual mistreatment. We had David Jones CEO Mark McInnes resigning after sexually harassing an employee, we had the army soldiers Daniel McDonald and Dylan Deblaquiere in their gross violation of a female cadet's sexual privacy, but in both cases the woman was pilloried for speaking about her experience. The army cadet became known as -the Skype slut', the DJ's employee was labelled a gold-digger, and so on. Cases like these continued, and continue today: footballer group sex scandals happen over and over, as do violations by -respected' entertainers like Rolf Harris and Bill Cosby. In almost all cases, the women are derided and reviled as sluts and liars - as punishment for daring to speak about their experience. And every time, we behave as if this has never happened before - as if it's not a consistent pattern in the way our society disregards and despises women who don't keep their mouths shut.
Question: How much of your inspiration comes from real life and real people?
Charlotte Wood: Both a great deal, and hardly any. This is the weird paradox of writing fiction like this. My book has tendrils into real life, in its glancing references to individual -cases' that will be familiar from media headlines, but those were purely leaping-off points for me, a way to enter into a fully imaginary world in my mind. It's dark but not bleak, I hope - because in the end there is also triumph, and beauty. My ten girls are tough and funny and angry and vulnerable and sweet. I hope they behave like real young women, making the best of a terrible situation, and calling on their deepest reserves of courage to survive. Most of all it's the story of the love between two friends, my characters Yolanda and Verla, and their refusal to bow to subjection.
Question: Do you ever find it difficult to write on such confronting subjects?
Charlotte Wood: Yes! For a time in writing this book I really struggled with the darkness of the material, and felt that something must be wrong with me for letting myself be drawn there. But once the first draft was written, and the mess of it was in front of me, then the job of the novelist kicked in: to shape it into a compelling story. The artistic job was to make the material into something shapely and even beautiful in its darkness - but most of all I wanted to create a gripping story. The book's main question grew more and more urgent: Will my girls escape or won't they? Who will rescue them? How can they rescue themselves?
Question: Can you tell us about your next novel?
Charlotte Wood: It's so small and fragile and embryonic that don't yet have much to say - except that it's about growing old, and sisterhood, and women's friendship. And it's going to be funny and full of lightness.
Interview by Brooke Hunter