Winner of the 2016 Stella Prize, the 2016 Indie Book Award, and of this year’s inaugural Jeremy’s Favourite Summer Read Award that I invented just now, Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things is an engrossing, at times horrifying, tale of survival, misogyny, corporate power and - ultimately - a fierce, sisterly bond.
Inspired in part by a true story, ten women wake in the middle of nowhere, drugged, lost, imprisoned in an old shearer’s quarters, perhaps. Ruled over and bullied by two guards and a nurse, the women are forced into hard labour, day by day. They wear the same itchy tunics and bonnets. Their heads are shaved. The women are connected, but how? And who - or what - is the mysterious corporation responsible for their imprisonment?
The story unfolds season by season through the eyes of Yolanda and Verla, two of the captives. The precise location of the prison is a mystery, yet Wood paints a vivid, claustrophobic world for the reader. A giant crater of scrub, dust and eucalypt. There are kookaburras, rabbits and kangaroos. Tin sheds burning under a merciless sun. An impenetrable electric fence. When supplies run low, and the daft but monstrous guards become more desperate, Yolanda and Verla realise the corporation may have abandoned them all. The women must save themselves, or die trying.
There is mystery. There is hardship. The Natural Way of Things makes for an unflinching, haunting read, but there is beauty to be found here, too. The unlikely friendship between Yolanda and Verla. Wood’s descriptions of the Australian outback. Her restrained, stark and stunning prose. This is a tight, layered story. A grim fable I highly recommend to all.