By Karen McCrea
The Natural Way of Things
By Charlotte Wood
Europa Editions (June, 2015)
We live in an age of official gender equality, and it’s true that a great deal has changed thanks to the resistance to patriarchy of women in our mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers’ times. We also live in a time when a great many young women shun the term ‘feminist’ and there is, in general, a regressive pull backwards. And some things are worse. There is a persistent backlash from the malignant masculine element (Let me be clear before the hackles rise; I do not refer to all men, nor all of the masculine). The loss of absolute power over women has manifested in a virulent hatred of the feminine (in both men and women by both men and women) in this domain and its individuals. One of the manifestations of this is in the flourishing of rape culture, which, at best, turns a blind eye to attack at the most fundamental and personal level of all – sexuality – and is now embedded so deeply in the culture it is hardly remarked upon, and outrage is often disappointingly tepid or plain missing. The feminine (in both men and women) is still derided and despised, in fact more deeply so by the malignant masculine. Women’s sexuality has been ‘freed’ into odious forms of subjugation – commercial currency in the market place and a truly dismaying level of degradation in the porn industry, which these days is a very lucrative forum for rape culture. The old dismaying, revolting double standard is alive and well and more dangerous than ever. It’s still all a girls fault, it is her very nature that makes it so, in fact it’s The Natural Way of Things.
Charlotte Wood has raised her voice in a clear, crystalline, articulate howl of fury against such misogyny in this, her fifth novel. And what a voice it is; fluent, powerful, lyrical, visceral. A dark tale, the story feels all too plausible, like it might have already happened, just recently.
A number of girls are drugged and whisked away to disappear, possibly forever. They are imprisoned in an abandoned, broken down compound ringed by an electric fence, in the middle of nowhere. The parallels with refugee camps and concentration camps, those depositories of other groups of people hated by the dominant powers, is pretty plain. The girls so taken have their identities and womanliness erased, another familiar violence perpetrated on targeted women – their heads are shaved, they are dressed in identical rough tunics, stiff boots and Amish style bonnets. They are stripped of rights, refused basic amenities of any kind, and set to hard labour on a literal chain gang. They are told nothing, given nothing, barely spoken to except for misogynistic abuse. They are watched over by two men; ‘Boncer’, a stupid, violent brute, and Teddy, a vacuous, self-serving, boy-man who just does what he’s told and discharges himself of any further responsibility. Their third warden is Nancy, a skinny, dim girl, supposedly a nurse, who sides with the men.
The writing is fierce and darkly sensual and often confronting. The toxic violence in the language used by the men towards the women is familiar in its vicious misogyny, and it is a bit sickening just to read it. Wood is unflinching in capturing the machinations of everyday hate, and writes with fluid fury on the page. We learn, via the heinous language of Boncer that they are “the ministers-little-travel-tramp and that Skype slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll number twelve and bogan gold-digger and gang bang slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.” Writing like that feels like being punched in the face; it’s so real, so vividly accurate.
And the crimes of these ten diverse girls? Sexuality that has resulted in men being compromised. The sexual actions of the errant men are not in question, it is the women who are blamed and vilified; they deserved what they got, they asked for it.
Told from the eyes of the girls themselves, they are not these hateful things, but women – one who truly loved a man who was, for her, The One. He was also a politician who deems himself too important to be compromised. The ‘yuck-ugly-dog’ is a person – “on the cruise ship dance floor, chin tilted, glossy hair up, the black sequinned boob tube that was in all the photos. Those eyelashes thick with lust and mascara, wide sexy mouth, all teeth and laughing. Before everything that happened, when Lydia was just a pretty Maltese girl at a party, a little drunk and up for it, when even that drug-fucked lowlife in the muscle t-shirt might have called her Lydia instead of that thing, that black ugly dog.”
The two main characters, Verla, who truly loved, and Yolanda the beauty, who was raped for it, then cast aside as used goods, quickly understand they have to come to a reckoning with all of this, that they must pull the scales from their eyes if they are to survive. They, and the other girls, represent those of us who are blind to, or seduced by, the patriarchy and like them, we need to wake up and see it for the deadly, toxic thing it is; to both genders. The hatred of the feminine isn’t restricted to men acting on women. The feminine aspects of men are hated too, and thus Boncer is quick to call Teddy a faggot as soon as he shows any signs of sympathy for the girls. In this, Teddy represents the unaggressive men, the weak, and more positively, those who won’t participate in misogyny, the homosexual, those who put love first. Such men also fall under the stamping boot of hatred. To abridge Carol Gilligan in ‘The Birth of Pleasure, A New Roadmap To Love’ – power and love cannot co-exist, and patriarchy is about power.
The women do not band together just because they’re all female, in fact they are often cruel and horrible to each other, their alliances shifting and falling. They are ruled by fear. Their passivity, the failure of ten able women to work together to overcome their two inadequate jailers attests to the introjection of shame and blame that disempowers women/the feminine so effectively.
Yolanda and Verla form a tentative alliance based on the recognition of the other’s capacity to see what’s happening, and it grows as they each come to grips with what they face. The alliance is fragile, tested by the very different response each has. One goes inward, finding a ‘natural’ and elemental self that would never be possible in the civilized world they have been stolen from. She becomes more and more wild, and simultaneously, more and more herself. She is the female body. The other meets hate with hate, obsessively plotting and planning a way out. She is the female intellect. We root for both and they need each other.
The first half of the novel draws the world the girls find themselves in, the reign of absolute masculine power. Just as that starts to feel unbearable, there is a shift in the story. Yolanda and Verla start to engage their own powers. There is an actual power failure, but the electric fence stays live. They’re all still trapped behind the fence, waiting for Hardings, but now power starts to shift and things start to change. Yolanda and Verla change. The rest, less so, they are less fully drawn.
Wood does not give us a predictable plot or even what we might expect; she never makes it clear whether Yolanda is free or mad, or if Verla is a murderer. We don’t get told what Harding’s role is about, nor what the point of the imprisonment might be. We have to think about it and form our own opinion. It’s fitting with the theme, and refreshing to not be told what to think. She doesn’t take us into the interior worlds of most of the girls. She is taking the long view, shouting to the world – see this, see what is, see what it does, get off the damned bus!
In short, it’s a brilliant piece of work, and despite the heavy theme it is not grim or depressing or preachy. I think you should read it.
Find the book here.
[Note: Perth-based writer, Rashida Murphy is Book Editor for Cafe Dissensus Everyday. Send your book reviews, critical pieces on books, author interviews, and book excerpts to Rashida at: email@example.com]
Karen McCrea was born in Northern Ireland and moved to Australia at the age of fifteen. Currently she lives in a small artsy town near Melbourne, writing fiction, poetry and book reviews. She has another life as a clinical psychologist and psychoanalytic psychotherapist.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Jewish-Muslim Relations in South Asia’, edited by Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi, Assistant Professor, Gautam Buddha University, Greater NOIDA, India.