I keep trying to write about why I love (totally love) The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood, winner of this year's Stella, a prize for an Australian book of fiction or non-fiction by a women. But I get overwhelmed. It's too big. This is a big rad impossible important book. Like a hippopotamus on a stool in the kitchen. I sometimes stop thinking about it and then I go back and look and it's still there. Being big. So I have to do this in stages. A bit at a time. with breaths and a day maybe days in between. Fragments and interrupted thoughts. I think this might be how reading is for me. Messy and convoluted. Potency revealing itself all at once and eking out gradually. Full of sense and nonsense. This one, I can't write tidily about.
Okay. First things.
When I first start reading the book I have read nothing about it, I haven’t even read the blurb on the cover. I'm dislocated. Lost. Bewildered. I have no idea where I am or what’s coming. The two women I read about, Verla and Yolanda, are lost too, waking drugged, confused and finding themselves in a type of asylum. Chapters alternate between them, each trying to locate themselves through sight and sound, and touch. Listening to birds. Watching the walls and then each other. Their physical experience amplified in their desperation to understand.
Outside, a single white cockatoo shrieks, closer and louder until the sound of it fills the room with murder. She and the girl lock gazes again, and then Verla peers back outside, up at the slot of sky.
The not knowing is a kind of madness, there’s a clear demarcation between where they are and where they’ve been before. Beyond that they’re grasping, full of doubt. Yolanda thinks
Perhaps they were right. Perhaps she was mad and all would be well.
I keep reading and a kind of madness takes me over. What the hell is this book? What is this place? Who wrote it? Who has conjured, who has thrown and centred, in some desolate isolated ex-sheep farm of Australia, a compound for women who have come out the wrong end of public sex scandals? Who has written of a compound where indescribably awful things happen to inconvenient women and then described those things? Who understands that society might just hate women that much?
Ten women are at the compound. Their hair is shaved, they are given rough Edwardian scratchy clothing to wear and slops to eat. They are chained together and marched for hours for the sole purpose of being shown a perimeter fence which has such intense electricity running through it you’d die if you try to escape. They are guarded by a homophobic thug and a dreadlocked hippy each as vile and misogynistic as the other.
This set up totally shouldn’t work. It’s too much. Too trope-y. Too ridiculous. Yet it's not and it does work, in grave and devastating ways. Others (by this time I’ve started reading about the book) have mentioned Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale which I thought about while reading, but I also thought about Frame’s depiction of a seemingly ludicrous human culling law in her 1970 novel Intensive Care. Like Atwood and Frame it seems the fictional depiction of something so extreme and awful provides a shattering context for what’s really going on. I mean that, that there, you want to say, would never happen. Would it? Yeah, no. Yeah.
Read part #2
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