The Stella Prize is awarded to fiction and non-fiction books written by Australian women and can be a bitter pill to swallow when the prize is given to a book about overt oppression of women. Charlotte Wood’s novel, The Natural Way of Things is the 2016 winner, and the irony of the title of a book depicting the enslavement and degradation of the women featured is a depressing reminder of the prevalence of misogyny in modern day Australia.
While the setting of The Natural Way of Things is a remote run-down old farm in rural Australia, the book has a futuristic, Orwellian sentiment. A group of young women have been drugged and herded here for the crimes of either speaking out against abuse, or for possessing free spirits that intimidate and threaten male dominance. Worse still, this organised imprisonment of wilful females appears to have corporate and institutional backing. All the young women except the high spirited Yolanda, have been tricked into agreeing to their enslavement, all apparently at the hands of men they trust. They awake from a drug induced haze to find themselves at the primitive, spartan farm surrounded by an electrical fence so they can never escape. They are at the mercy of their brutal supervisors Boncer and Teddy, and the mentally unstable Nancy, all the while forced to wear Dickensian uniforms, eat packaged food from a finite store, and build a road in expectation of the arrival of the elusive ‘Hardings’.
‘Hardings’ never arrive and the story evolves into how the dysfunctional community of slaves organises itself in order to survive. The story is also about the unlikely friendship of the two strongest characters in the group, Yolanda and Verla, and their roles in the survival of the group of miscreants, as well as their own plotting to gain freedom.
The Natural Way of Things is a difficult book for any woman to read. To realise that the story may not be so far-fetched in modern day Australia is frightening. On the other hand, it is an interesting analogy of how hierarchy forms in a group even when brutal oppressors are present.
Charlotte Woods will be appearing at the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival, August 5 to 7.