I was interested in this book for a couple of reasons: it won the Stella Prize (Australian prize celebrating women’s writing) in 2016 and it was one of Reading Matters’ top books last year. I read one of her other books (The Submerged Cathedral) and was impressed. I hesitated, though, because it’s dystopian, thus outside my usual interest, and I concluded it was too clearly polemical. But, nevertheless I persisted, as they say.
It opens with Yolanda coming to consciousness, wondering where she is and why she is wearing a coarse nightdress. She is put in a room with another woman, also drugged. Eventually we are introduced to the whole group of women who are imprisoned in an isolated area and held captive by two men and an impenetrable electric fence. Each of them is “guilty” of a sexual transgression of some sort: Yolanda was gang-raped by a football team and Verla had an affair with a political figure and her existence became inconvenient, for two examples. A long section describes how they are indoctrinated into the brutality of their lives in this prison. Then life becomes worse when they realize they’ve been abandoned by the corporation that oversees their incarceration and must struggle to feed themselves.
As they survive the horrors of their lives, they wondered what was being said about them in the public forum, whether their femaleness was at the center of their attacks, “as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls, somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.” Well, it’s true that we all accept living in a culture where men prey on women in a way that degrades everyone. A notable expression of that is the election of a president who was recorded bragging about it. While we do sanction men for rape, at the same time we blame women for wearing provocative clothes, for drinking in an environment where men are on the loose, for being on the streets at night.
In my continuing quest to understand why women are secondary in every culture, this book and recent political events have made me conscious of the importance of a biological imperative. Humans want (badly!) to reproduce themselves and for men that means controlling women’s bodies to be sure they make that happen. When women become more independent, the certainty of that control is lessened. One piece of the puzzle.
I’ve linked to an article Charlotte Wood wrote about this book that is enlightening. She begins by telling that a few days after Trump was elected, this graffiti appeared in a gentrifying middle class Melbourne neighborhood: “1. Cunt-punch a slut”. Aargh. The main impetus for writing this book was a radio program the author heard about a brutal prison camp for young women in Australia in the 1960s and 1970s whose “sexual transgressions” included those she used in the book.
Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things, Europa Editions, 2016, 230 pages. Available at the public library and from Amazon.