Sometimes a novel refuses to be read autonomously: it transcends its form and speaks to the culture at large. In The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood delivers a twisted riff on media misogyny, a darkly dystopian vision made all the more terrifying by how easily it fits into our own world.
That revealing its central conceit in no way spoils the book is a testament to Wood’s inventive approach to storytelling. After a group of frightened women awake at a brutal facility in the outback, we quickly learn that each has been involved in a high profile sex scandal. Derided in gossip columns and online forums, the women have been removed by the men who professed to love them, and in the scorching heat of the desert are made to work towards an obscure redemption.
The novel couldn’t be more timely. It refutes the culture of righteous thinkpieces and feel-good, popstar feminism, and is instead stunningly, unabashedly angry. Wood argues that misogyny is so entrenched that the only hope for these women is to return to primal instinct. As the pretty, young Yolanda hardens into a vicious hunter, she finds the freedom that has alluded her even prior to her literal captivity. Her bond with the obstinate Verda is unsentimental and raw, a friendship predicated on survival.
Wood’s characters become stand-ins for aspects of our society that aren’t always easy to identify. The girls’ captors, Boncer and Teddy, are the embodiment of patriarchal oppression: if loathsome Boncer is the kind of frustrated and violent figure we’re so used to hearing about in reports of mass shootings, then the softer Teddy is a no less repellent for his casual sense of entitlement. More difficult to pin down is Nancy, the sickly sweet incompetent who aids in the abuse of other women.
And then there are the girls themselves: desperate, damaged, delusional. Those who cling to their former lives are the ones who damn themselves, whilst by breaking down to her most essential self, Yolanda stands a chance at survival. As the lines between captor and captive become increasingly blurred, and the hierarchies of their small society shift with the deteriorating conditions, Wood moves past the story’s ostensible theme of the relationships between men, women, and even humans. It becomes a story about animals, what they will and will not do to each other.
To hear Charlotte Wood discuss the book on Friday, October 23rd, book tickets online or in-store.