Dystopian Novel Challenges Misogyny As 'The Natural Way Of Things'

Jul 26, 2016
Originally published on July 26, 2016 2:24 pm

Novelists have always put their heroines through awful ordeals. But over time, these tribulations change. Where the 19th Century was filled with fictional women trapped in punishing marriages — think of Middlemarch or The Portrait of a Lady — today's heroines face trials that are bigger, more political, and more physically demanding. They fight in hunger games.

This fight takes a different form in The Natural Way of Things, a ferocious new novel by the Australian Charlotte Wood whose writing recalls the early Elena Ferrante — it's tough, direct, and makes no attempt to be ingratiating.

Set in a dystopian backwater, her short, gripping book begins as an allegory of thuggish misogyny then evolves into a far stranger and more challenging feminist parable.

The first chapters plunge us into a dusty, desolate prison camp deep in the outback. The prisoners, we learn, are 10 young women whose crime, so to speak, is to have been involved in sex scandals, from sleeping with a priest, to engaging in a cruise-ship orgy, to giving sexual favors to the judge of a talent show.

Now pariahs, they've been drugged and kidnapped, dressed in rough, ratty clothes, and sent off to do hard, pointless labor. Surrounded by electric fencing and cackled at by kookaburras, they are being systematically degraded.

With such a set-up, Wood is clearly offering a metaphor for our own everyday world in which girls are "slut-shamed," rape victims get accused of bringing the violence on themselves, female celebrities are threatened sexually online and, at the outer limit, women are actually murdered in the name of honor, as recently happened to the Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch who was killed by her brother for dishonoring her family.

All these cases remind us that female sexuality, and the bullying attempt to control it, remain dangerously volatile flashpoints in almost every culture.

What keeps all this from seeming doctrinaire is the book's sheer imaginative intensity. Wood's writing crackles with vivid precision, from her accounts of the prisoner's disgusting meals — you can almost taste the powdery mac-and-cheese in water — to her strikingly exact descriptions of nature. When kangaroos begin magically bounding by the hundreds through the camp, she registers not only the "thumping syncopation," but also notices their "little malleted dark faces."

Of course, like any really good captivity story, The Natural Way of Things is also about ways of escape. In particular, Wood focuses on two very different heroines who form a strange, almost silent bond as survivors. One is Yolanda, a ravishing, physically strong 19-year-old, whom I kept picturing as a marvelous, otherworldly creature, like Charlize Theron in Mad Max.

The other is the brainy Verla, who's clearly the educated reader's surrogate. She was the lover of a married political bigshot, and because of her higher social status, Verla initially thinks that she, unlike the others, is there by mistake.

Where their fellow captives spend their free time yearning for their old clothes and trying to make themselves attractive — one even starts sleeping with a guard — Yolanda and Verla explore the campgrounds around them. Wandering the barren landscape that comes to life after a new rainfall, Yolanda turns herself into a hunter who traps wild rabbits and, in the process, grows ever more feral herself. Verla obsessively throws herself into looking for mushrooms for reasons that soon become apparent. Both wind up being transformed.

And here's where the book's title comes in.

Where the male captors think it the natural way of things that men should rule, Yolanda and Verla strip away the historical veneer of female subservience. They recreate themselves based on a deeper, more complicated vision of the natural order, one that grasps the bond between all living beings. I'd like to tell you that this is a happy ending, but Wood is too honest to offer anything so reassuringly easy. Even as her heroines begin a radical new way of living, Wood knows that the natural way of things is as risky and wild as it is free.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our critic-at-large John Powers says these are boom times for dystopian fiction. The trend takes a feminist spin in "The Natural Way Of Things," a new novel by Charlotte Wood recently released by Europa Editions. The book won several major literary prizes in her native Australia. And John says it deserved to because it's a rarity - a page-turner that captures real truths about the dark side of contemporary life.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Novelists have always put their heroines through awful ordeals. But over time, these tribulations change. Where the 19th century was filled with fictional women trapped in punishing marriages - think of "Middlemarch" or "The Portrait Of A Lady" - today's heroines face trials that are bigger, more political and more physically demanding. They fight in Hunger Games. This fight takes a different form in "The Natural Way Of Things," a ferocious new novel by the Australian Charlotte Wood, whose writing recalls the early Elena Ferrante. It's tough, direct and makes no attempt to be ingratiating.

Set in a dystopian backwater, her short gripping book begins as an allegory of thuggish misogyny, then evolves into a far stranger and more challenging feminist parable. The first chapters plunge us into a dusty desolate prison camp deep in the outback. The prisoners, we learn, are 10 young women whose crime, so to speak, is to have been involved in sex scandals, from sleeping with the priest to engaging in a cruise ship orgy to giving sexual favors to the judge of a talent show.

Now pariahs, they've been drugged and kidnapped, dressed in rough, ratty clothes and sent off to do hard, pointless labor. Surrounded by electric fencing and cackled at by the kookaburras, they are being systematically degraded. With such a setup, Wood is clearly offering a metaphor for our own everyday world in which girls are slut-shamed, rape victims get accused of bringing the violence on themselves. Female celebrities are threatened sexually online. And at the outer limit, women are actually murdered in the name of honor, as recently happened to the Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch, who was killed by her brother for dishonoring her family.

All these cases remind us that female sexuality, and the bullying attempt to control it, remain dangerously volatile flashpoints in almost every culture. What keeps all this from seeming doctrinaire is the book's sheer imaginative intensity. Woods's writing crackles with vivid precision, from her accounts of the prisoners disgusting meals - you can almost taste the powdery mac-and-cheese in water - to her strikingly exact descriptions of nature.

When kangaroos begin magically bounding by the hundreds through the camp, she registers not only the thumping syncopation but also notices their little malleted dark faces. Of course, like any really good captivity story, the natural way of things is also about ways of escape.

In particular, Wood focuses on two very different heroines who form a strange, almost silent bond as survivors. One is Yolanda, a ravishing, physically strong 19-year-old whom I kept picturing as a marvelous, otherworldly creature, like Charlize Theron in "Mad Max." The other is the brainy Verla, who is clearly the educated reader's surrogate. She was the lover of a married political big shot. And because of her higher social status, Verla initially thinks that she, unlike the others, is there by mistake. While their fellow captives spend their free time yearning for their old clothes and trying to make themselves attractive - one even starts sleeping with a guard - Yolanda and Verla explore the campgrounds around them.

Wandering the barren landscape that comes to life after a new rainfall, Yolanda turns herself into a hunter who traps wild rabbits and in the process grows ever more feral herself. Verla obsessively throws herself into looking for mushrooms for reasons that soon become apparent. Both wind up being transformed.

And here's where the book's title comes in. Where the male captors think of the natural way of things that men should rule, Yolanda and Verla strip away the historical veneer of female subservience. They recreate themselves based on a deeper, more complicated vision of the natural order, one that grasps the bond between all living things. I'd like to tell you that this is a happy ending, but Wood is too honest to offer anything so reassuringly simple. Even as her heroines find a radical new approach to living, Wood knows that the natural way of things is as risky and wild as it is free.

GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed "The Natural Way Of Things" by Charlotte Wood. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be New York Times reporter Amy Chozick. We'll talk about her experiences covering Hillary Clinton. Chozick has written extensively about the Clintons since 2007. This week, she's at the Democratic National Convention. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Anne Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.