By Charlotte WoodFiction Allen & Unwin
The Natural Way of Things
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.
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’s The Natural Way of Things is set in a near-future so similar to the world we inhabit that it seems a natural – if disturbing – progression. Ten women are captured and taken to a vast outback prison surrounded by an electric fence. There, their heads are shaved, they are put in chains and fear is instilled by arbitrary rules and punishments. Their crimes? They have become inconveniences to powerful men who have sexually harassed, abused or taken advantage of them. Wood savagely, powerfully explores the undercurrent of misogyny in Australia’s society and news pages, with sexual scenarios ripped from the headlines, the casual misogyny of the women’s prison guards, and the women’s judgement of each other. Though driven by the engine of its ideas, The Natural Way of Things is also distinguished by Wood’s evocative descriptions of place and her uncanny ability to inhabit her characters, through precise observation, psychological clarity and telling detail.
So there were kookaburras here. This was the first thing Yolanda knew in the dark morning. (That and where’s my durries?) Two birds breaking out in that loose, sharp cackle, a bird call before the sun was up, loud and lunatic.
She got out of the bed and felt gritty boards beneath her feet. There was the coarse unfamiliar fabric of a nightdress on her skin. Who had put this on her?
She stepped across the dry wooden floorboards and stood, craning her neck to see through the high narrow space of a small window. The two streetlights she had seen in her dream turned out to be two enormous stars in a deep blue sky. The kookaburras dazzled the darkness with their horrible noise.
Later there would be other birds; sometimes she would ask about them, but questions made people suspicious and they wouldn’t answer her. She would begin to make up her own names for the birds. The waterfall birds, whose calls fell tumbling. And the squeakers, the tiny darting grey ones. Who would have known there could be so many birds in the middle of absolutely fucking nowhere?
But that would all come later.
Here, on this first morning, before everything began, she stared up at the sky as the blue night lightened, and listened to the kookaburras and thought, Oh, yes, you are right. She had been delivered to an asylum.
She groped her way along the walls to a door. But there was no handle. She felt at its edge with her fingernails: locked. She climbed back into the bed and pulled the sheet and blanket up to her neck. Perhaps they were right. Perhaps she was mad, and all would be well.
She knew she was not mad, but all lunatics thought that.
When they were small she and Darren had once collected mounds of moss from under the tap at the back of the flats, in the dank corner of the yard where it was always cool, even on the hottest days. They prised up the clumps of moss, the earth heavy in their fingers, and it was a satisfying job, lifting a corner and being careful not to crack the lump, getting better as they went at not splitting the moss and pulling it to pieces. They filled a crackled orange plastic bucket with the moss and took it out to the verge on the street to sell. ‘Moss for sale!’ they screamed at the hot cars going by, giggling and gesturing and clowning, and, ‘Wouldja like ta buy some moss?’ more politely if a man or woman walked past. Nobody bought any moss, even when they spread it beautifully along the verge, and Darren sent Yolanda back twice for water to pour over it, to keep it springy to the touch. Then they got too hot, and Darren left her there sitting on the verge while he went and fetched two cups of water, but still nobody bought any moss. So they climbed the stairs and went inside to watch TV, and the moss dried out and turned grey and dusty and died.
This was what the nightdress made her think of, the dead moss, and she loved Darren even though she knew it was him who let them bring her here, wherever she was. Perhaps he had put her in the crazed orange bucket and brought her here himself.
What she really needed was a ciggy.
While she waited there in the bed, in the dead-moss nightdress and the wide silence—the kookaburras stopped as instantly as they began—she took an inventory of herself.
Yolanda Kovacs, nineteen years eight months. Good body (she was just being honest, why would she boast, when it had got her into such trouble?). She pulled the rustling nightdress closer—it scratched less, she was discovering, when tightly wrapped.
One mother, one brother, living. One father, unknown, dead or alive. One boyfriend, Robbie, who no longer believed her (at poor Robbie, the rush of a sob in her throat. She swallowed it down). One night, one dark room, that bastard and his mates, one terrible mistake. And then one giant fucking unholy mess.
Yolanda Kovacs, lunatic. And that word frightened her, and she turned her face and cried into the hard pillow.
She stopped crying and went on with her inventory. Things missing: handbag, obviously. Ciggies (almost full pack), purple lighter, phone, make-up, blue top, bra, underpants, skinny jeans. Shoes. Three silver rings from Bali, reindeer necklace from Darren (she patted her chest for it again, still gone).
Yolanda looked up at the dark window. Oh, stars. Stay with me. But very soon the sky was light and the two stars had gone, completely.
She breathed in and out, longed for nicotine, curled in the bed, watching the door.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist