Sex and Gender in Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things

Reading in the New Year for the AWW2017 Challenge

Reading in the New Year for the AWW2017 Challenge

This review is part of the AWW2017 Challenge


Germain Greer cautioned in 1970 that ‘women have very little idea of how much men hate them.’ Greer is a staunch second-wave feminist and an essentialist – an epistemological basis which has seen much of her work come under fire in recent decades. While Greer’s views on trans women and her assumptions of biologically-determined gender have largely been rejected, much of her – and her peers’ – feminist theory, and its associated understanding of gender, has become an assumed and accepted part of the feminist landscape. And herein lies the issue I had with Charlotte Wood’s otherwise brilliant, challenging, and confronting horror parable The Natural Way of Things.

Yolanda wakes in the middle of the night to the sound of kookaburras and realises she is in an asylum. She longs for a cigarette – one of many comforts she will come to crave over the novel’s year-long time frame – and wonders at the people (her boyfriend and her brother) who have allowed her to be confined in this place. In the next chapter we are introduced to a drugged and terrified Verla who is already planning to make a complaint regarding the indignities that she has suffered, sure in her knowledge that she will soon be released.

Alienating and disturbing from its opening, The Natural Way of Things soon reveals a a cast of 10 imprisoned women from vastly different walks of life (an army officer, an elite athlete, a singer, a PR manager and so on), two sadistic man guards (the overtly and pathetically masculine Boncer and the vegan yoga-enthusiast and self-proclaimed ‘good guy’ Teddy), and another woman, Nancy, whose role is largely undefined but seems to be to take care of the imprisoned women’s health. The ‘asylum’ to which Yolanda believed herself to have been committed in fact turns out to be a converted shearing station devoid of human contact and surrounded by an insurmountable electric fence. Within this prison the women are subjected to physical violence, forced manual labour, and the burning though largely un-stated threat of rape by the guards. The women, it is revealed, have all been involved in high profile sex scandals which have caused inconvenience to the powerful men who instigated them. Significantly, the women – in an all-too-familiar construction – are blamed for the assaults and have thus been sent to to the shearing station in order, as Boncer tells Verla before kicking her across the room, ‘to know what [they] are.’

Women’s bodies violently controlled by masculine forces is a mainstay of feminist fiction, but The Natural Way of Things puts a new spin on an old favourite when food deliveries fail to arrive and it becomes apparent that even the jailers Boncer, Teddy, and Nancy are imprisoned by the fence and the surrounding harshness of the landscape. By the time autumn arrives (the book is segmented by season), the strict daily schedule of the prisoners has largely dissipated and the characters begin to fend for themselves, establishing their own cliques and hierarchies, and finding their own ways to fend off beckoning madness. The guards retain their assumed power, and the threat of physical violence is ever-present, but it is at this point that the book comes into its own as allegorical contemplation on the lived experience of women – and men – within the insurmountable and always live reality of patriarchal enclosure and control.

The novel is a contemplation on ‘Woman’ as inherently subjugated and subaltern, and as a socially- and culturally-constructed entity. This is not new territory, though Wood’s visceral writing and unrelenting pace certainly cast the debates in a new and illuminating light. Unfortunately, the novel tends to make its argument through a dialectical consideration of femininity vs femaleness, holding the latter as some sort of biologically-defined and anchoring fact of nature.

Femaleness manifests in the novel through imagery of earth, blood, and birth. Yolanda remembers watching an elephant give birth at a zoo, remembers its placenta as ‘Alien, monstrous, female…’. It is Yolanda ‘held to the earth with purpose and gravity, labouring in the work of birth out in the darkening fields beneath the raining sky’ – a field to which the women will later return for the other end of women’s work: death – who attempts to save the kittens of the struggling mother rabbit and who, having failed, sews one of the dead baby bodies into Hetty’s grotesque doll Ransom in an inverse birthing process and a parody of fertility symbols to make ‘a warrior, voodoo doll, goddess, [or] corpse.’ And it is Yolanda – stronger than Verla from the opening chapter – who reverts most fully to her atavistic femaleness and in doing so is the only one of the 10 women to find a strong possibility of freedom: ‘she is already far away, fully animal, released…so vigorously alive in her rabbit self…’.

And while all this made for gripping reading, it also acted as a distraction from the more interesting questions raised at the beginning of the novel of the way in which power is constructed and perpetuated along gendered lines, and the way in which gender is itself created: what makes a woman (as opposed to female) body one that is not only subjected to violence, but also one that is held accountable and responsible for that violence. The violence inflicted upon a woman’s body is always in the passive tense (‘a woman was assaulted’) and this is because the man body that inflicts that violence can be largely discounted from the process: the man body is assumed to not only not be responsible, but to not even be necessary for the violence to occur. The woman body is synonymous with violence, can only be understood through/as thing which experiences violence; thus the singular or individual man body which inflicts this violence is less important than the woman body’s existence and understanding as pre-ordained object to be violated. In gathering together 10 very different women with a frighteningly familiar shared experience, The Natural Way of Things set up an interesting frame through which to explore these issues. Unfortunately, it got distracted along the way by trying to uncover a fundamentality that does not exist.

While Wood is to be commended for having written a gripping and powerful novel which contributes significantly to understandings of the treatment of women – and while I still wholeheartedly recommend it as a fantastic and important read – the novel’s pervasive and redemptive celebration of ‘femaleness’ at the expense of a considered examination of ‘woman’ made it difficult for me to really love the novel.

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