Home > Reviews > Prose > The brilliant “Natural Way of Things” is a “Handmaid’s Tale” for the 21st century

Review by Will Preston

The Natural Way of Things
by Charlotte Wood
Allen & Unwin, 2015
Europa editions, 2016

Yolanda wakes.

She’s in an unfamiliar room, somewhere deep in the Australian outback. The door has no handle; a narrow window lets in a shrieking torrent of birdsong. Someone has dressed her in strange, uncomfortable clothes: a long canvas smock, a coarse calico blouse, a hideous bonnet. Clothes “out of some hillbilly TV show from the 80s. Or even older.” (28) Her brain spirals in disorientation. What is she doing here? Is she in an asylum? A reality TV show? And who put her here?

The door opens and a man comes in, “bustling, purposeful,” dressed in a boiler suit. (20) No explanations are offered. He clips a leash to her tunic, leads her down the hall, and sits her down in a chair. A second man wields an electric razor, presses it to Yolanda’s skull, runs it through her long black hair. She gasps in shock; the man pauses, frowns, says, “Shut up.” Then, “experimentally, testing the word as if he’d never said it before, as if he’d just learned it,” adds: “You slut.” He shoves her from the chair and Yolanda goes sprawling, tottering like a sheep to slaughter, into yet another room—“full of bald and frightened girls.” (23)

Thus begins Charlotte Wood’s riveting, nightmarish new novel, The Natural Way of Things. The winner of Australia’s prestigious Stella Award, Wood’s book is at once a thrilling survival story, an intricate character study, and above all, a seething feminist manifesto, a direct challenge to a patriarchy fearful of female sexuality and empowerment. This is a Handmaid’s Tale for the 21st century, knuckles cracked, teeth sharpened and bared.

The ten women held captive have nothing in common except one thing: they’ve all been at the center of very public sex scandals. There’s “Hetty the cardinal’s girl, Marilynd the school principal’s ‘head girl,’ that morose gamer girl Rhiannon, the wanking mascot for every little gamer creep in the country.” (50) Yolanda, “nineteen years eight months,” found herself in a dark room with a group of footballers; Vera had a corporate affair with a man who read her Wordsworth and took her to see the Pietà. (14) We are never given the full, lurid details, nor do we need them. These are stories we know well—as is, in a way, their predicament. Trapped on an abandoned sheep farm encircled by an electric fence, forced to perform menial labour by two young male guards who hurl bitch and slut and loom threateningly behind them, the girls’ prison is a literal representation of the horrors of victim shaming.

The novel wastes no time in piling mystery on top of mystery. Who is responsible for this? What do they want? What does it have to do with the shadowy Hardings International, whose name is printed on the grimy bowls the girls eat out of, and whose arrival the guards await with sneering anticipation? Yet, in a tricky narrative sleight-of-hand, the girls—and the reader—gradually realize that no answers are forthcoming, no easy reveals. Wood is less interested in the why of misogyny than what comes next, and as the weeks turn into months, the novel’s power structure begins to tip, leading to a see-sawing game of cat-and-mouse between the guards and their increasingly feral captives. To say more would ruin the power and strangeness of Wood’s perfectly realized vision, though it is safe to say it is not what you expect. Little about this book is what you expect.

All of this could have been unbearably grim had Wood not infused her novel with the verve and pacing of a first-rate thriller. The Natural Way of Things is a novel that demands to be read in one sitting, cover-to-cover, and yet all but requires breaks to walk away and calm your shredded nerves. Wood understands that the threat of violence can be more terrifying than violence itself, and the book is a masterpiece of prolonged tension and barely-withheld conflict. She is also a brilliant prose stylist, her sentences sharp and evocative as a shard of glass. Her descriptions, especially in the novel’s second half, bloom into passages that border on the hallucinatory: a scene where Yolanda, wandering the grounds, finds a pregnant rabbit shivering in the cold and tucks it beneath her clothes as it gives birth; a discarded plastic bag filled with the girls’ shaved hair, “clumps and plaits and ponytails”; Verla leaning back in her chair and quietly realizing that the “fly-spotted ceiling” of the dining room is “covered with the fine hairs of settled mosquitos. Hundreds of them, not moving, not searching, not hungry. Waiting.” (165, 95) Such is the sense of menace cast across every scene, a dark swarm of its own waiting to descend.

For Wood is unsparing in her depiction of casual, unhinged sexism: the flashes of humanity in the guards—one of them has “a hippie boy’s vacant, golden face,” practices yoga, and eats “ugly faded-looking dried fruits and various powders and supplements”; another has an angry white pimple on his chin and frets about what to write on his Tinder profile—only serve to augment their terrible acts of cruelty. (20, 63) After all, what woman doesn’t know a man who has masked deep hatred or entitlement towards women behind a veneer of cultivation, liberalism, civility? Misogyny, like racism, adapts itself to the times, and with these two guards, Wood has created a chilling representation of a society that considers itself enlightened and yet still keeps women in cages.

It is from there that the novel’s central question emerges: at what point, and from where, comes the strength to say I refuse? To stand against a system that knows best, that not only degrades women, but posits womanhood itself as the culprit for sexual violence—“as if the girls lured abduction and abandonment to themselves, marshaled themselves into this prison where they had made their beds, and now, once more, were lying in them.” (133) The book offers no easy answers: its climax is as cynical as it is satisfying, as troubling in its implications as it is empowering. But the questions it asks are necessary to consider, for men as well as women. The prison of the novel, enclosed with its barbed electric fence, is as inescapable for the guards as it is for the girls. The arrogance of men has trapped them all in there together.

A native of Williamsburg, VA, Will Preston has since lived in Oregon, England, and the Netherlands. He has written extensively on travel, music, and history, and was most recently published in Rowan University’s Glassworks Magazine. He is currently an MFA candidate at the University of British Columbia.