Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things opens in a prison. Ten women have been dragged from their homes, off the bus, or from workplaces awake from a groggy drug-induced sleep. Their modern clothes have been exchanged for antique-looking tunics and thick leather boots that mangle their feet; they are frightened and have no idea where they are or why they are there. Confused, they wait for the worst. This is how Verla and Yolanda, the book’s two protagonists, first meet; strangers holding hands, seeking the smallest reassurance of contact in the looming expectation of violence. The violence comes, but the answers do not.
They are each taken down a hallway of a derelict compound, their heads are shaved by two male guards, Boncer and Teddy. Yet the guards refuse to answer their questions, refuse to tell them why they have been abducted from their homes and families and taken here. “I need to know where I am,” Verla says to Boncer, the guard who violently relishes in his power. “Oh, sweetie. You need to know what you are,” he replies.
The women—or girls as Wood calls them—are chained together and marched across the compound. Outside they realize that they are somewhere in the Australian Outback at an abandoned and run-down sheep-shearing station. Located within the compound is a full ecosystem: kangaroos, rabbits, and snakes inhabit the abandoned grounds and, like the girls, they are trapped. The compound is surrounded by a massive electrified fence. There is no phone, no internet and no television—no access to the outside world at all. The girls are put to hard labor and forced to sleep in dog cages, their lives are supervised by Boncer and Teddy who alternate between brutality and a desperate kind of neediness.
Eventually, the girls realize why they might be there: all have been involved in some kind of sex scandal with important or powerful men. There is Izzy, the girl who was sexually harassed by an airline CEO; Barbs the talented swimmer who had to “open her mouth about the ‘sports massage’”; Hetty, the “almost underage” girl in the Catholic cardinal’s photographs. Then there is Maitlynd, the school principal’s “head girl,” the gamer Rhiannon, Leandra from the Army, Lydia from the cruise ship, and Joy, a talented young singer from a popular reality show. Finally, there are Vera and Yolanda, the two characters who drive Wood’s novel; Vera the politician’s mistress and beautiful Yolanda, who should have known what the soccer stars would do with her.
They are all women who have been sexually harassed, assaulted, or raped; or women who have spoken when they should have remained silent. They have dared to be visible when they should have been ghosts; dared to point a finger and name powerful men whose power should not have been undermined. Wood never bothers to give their stories in detail; she frankly doesn’t need to, the women who populate The Natural Way of Things are so familiar that they seem plagiarized. But they are not, it’s simply that we already know their stories intimately, we have already read them and heard them repeated. The cruelty of the women’s stories almost seems cliché.
The setup makes it clear that this is an unapologetically feminist novel in the tradition of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet unlike Butler and Atwood, Wood is not interested in futuristic dystopias—there are no governmental collapses, no environmental disasters, only the patriarchal oppression of now. In an interview, Wood said that the outline of the story came to her while listening to a radio program about the Hay Institution for Girls, a secondary prison in rural Australia where, in the 1960s, ten girls were taken from the Sydney Parramatta Girls’ Home after they were determined to be “incorrigible” and in need of “extra training.” Most of the girls, Wood notes, were brought to Parramatta because their promiscuity presented “moral danger.” When they were transferred to Hay, they were drugged and beaten and forced into hard labor. The existence of Hay remained a government secret until the early 2000s.
The girls of Wood’s novel are in no dystopia. Instead, they are imprisoned by present policing of their bodies, the corrosive discrimination of political and economic systems that turns women’s bodies against them, rebuilding them as flesh and blood prisons. If this seems like a transparent analogy, it’s because it’s meant to be. Both Butler and Atwood dissect patriarchal oppression with the refined skill of a pointillist, constructing detailed futures in which our own oppression can be more clearly seen, yet Wood has little interest in delicate brushwork. Wood’s novel is all garish and bold brushstrokes. And yet it is effective, the horror is easy to see, it is even easier to feel. In a brief interlude in the novel, Wood writes:
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 center, as if womanhood itself were the natural 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 marshaled themselves into this prison where they had made their beds, and now, once more, were lying in them.
The book shifts in the second half after the food and supplies provided to the compound fail to arrive. The jailers become prisoners and the compound becomes a kind of primitive outpost. The girls, led by Yolanda, trap rabbits and, seeking warmth, they cover their tired but newly-muscled bodies in the fur. Stripped of cultural expectations, the girls are reduced to their animality. Wood’s conflation of the hunted rabbits—skinned and boiled—with the condition of the abused girls is both blunt and beautifully written.
Here too, Wood resists the narrative of empowerment, recognizing instead the contours of oppression. The girls do not band together to overthrow the guards who have become increasingly bitter and unstable. Sexism, Wood acknowledges, works against women, yet it always works on them. And even here, in this prison cut off from the world that discarded them, where these girls are free only to make their culture, they instead conform to old stereotypes. Some of the girls become passive, others seek favor with the guards with obedient sexual compliance, and some turn on each other. Solidarity is merely a fiction and there is no escaping prison, tangible or otherwise.