The Natural Way of Things - 2015 Reading Challenge

I would rarely use a quote from another person's review in my own, but I feel that Malcolm Knox summed up Charlotte Wood's new novel, The Natural Way of Things, just perfectly when he said "As a man, to read it is as unsettling as receiving one piece of bad news after another. It is confronting. Yet anyone who reads it, man or woman, is going to be left with a sense that a long-hidden truth has been revealed to them." This. This is just it. The Natural Way of Things is one of those special books that you come across as a reader only a few times a year (assuming you read as much as I do). It is a book of truths without being preachy, a book full of lessons without being instructive. It's a book about the injustices involved in being a woman -- a book full of rage.

I tweeted about reading this last week: "40 pages into The Natural Way of Things. Feeling panicked and anxious, but also excited because I can tell: this is a special book."

It only became clearer as I read on. In fact, all of the gushing I've seen from others on Twitter and in the blurbs about the book is completely justified, in my opinion, because this book is just something so new and fresh that I am in love.

A book you own but have never read

The Natural Way of Things is not a comfortable book. You will get absolutely zero warm fuzzies and probably a good dose of gut-twisting shame from reading it. I don't see this book as an attack against men, but rather as a megaphone announcing what it's like to be a woman -- what is expected of us and what that means. The thing that really surprised me is how much of it I had never thought about, the parts of being a human and being female that I had never considered, which Wood shines such a glaring light on in a somehow beautiful way.

Okay, enough of my blathering. Let me tell you what it's about, as best I can.

Two women wake up from a drugged sleep in a strange house. Their heads are shaved and they are chained to another six women, and all marched for hours under the beating sun of the Australian outback. They come to a heavily electrified fence and warned that to touch it means certain death.

They are trapped in this place, forced to do hard labor, carrying concrete blocks and building a road for some unknown man named Hardings whose arrival is imminent.

But Hardings does not come. Over the weeks of grueling work, regular beatings, and scarce food, the women discover what brought them all to this place -- at one time, in their pasts, they each had a sexual scandal with a powerful man.

As the months pass and the food supplies dry out, it becomes clear that the men who are acting as their slave drivers are no more free than they are themselves. The captive women and their jailers descend into animalistic madness, forced to survive by any means necessary, held behind the deadly fence.

There are so many moments in this novel that I felt my chest ache with the sheer rightness of it -- not the rightness of what is done to these women, but the way the author perfectly captured the feelings of being trapped and helpless that so many women experience all the time. Constantly at the mercy of men, made to feel disgusting for things that we can't control, made to be insecure about our bodies and our hair and our faces and our needs.

Take this moment, for instance, several chapters into the novel when the women are faced with constant manual labor in the sun and lack of food. One of them echoed my thoughts exactly by saying, "At least we should all lose some weight."

How sick is that? But how true. How exactly right that that's what so many women would think of if put in this impossibly horrible situation. The beacon of positivity they would hold on to.

I really could go on and on about this novel, but I don't want to say too much more and give it away. Needless to say, the premise of The Natural Way of Things can be pretty well summed up by this gorgeous paragraph about halfway through the novel:

What would people in their old lives be saying about these girls? Would they be called missing? Would some documentary program on the ABC that nobody watched, or one of those thin newspapers nobody read, somehow connect their cases, find the thread to make them a story? The Lost Girls, they would be called. 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)

Image credit: Flickr/Alexander Häusermann/2012