The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
One might think “the natural way of things” would be a glimpse into a Rousseau-nian child’s world, where things go as they ought. Think again. The Natural Way of Things is a question writ so confrontingly, any answer would pale in comparison. “The Lost Girls, they would be called. Would it be said they ‘disappeared,’ were lost? Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the center, 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.” This last sentence is not an answer to the questions, rather, a taunt to make sense of what unfolds for ourselves.
The story begins in a kind of trance. A girl, Yolanda, wakes up drugged and in pain somewhere she doesn’t recognize. She doesn’t know how she got there, or quite remember what she was doing before she came. Slowly, through her blurred, groggy, confused vision, we meet other players, other girls and their keepers. It isn’t until Yolanda’s drug wears off that the writing clears up, too, and the plot becomes more of a single strand we can follow. They are in the outback, away from cell phones, bathrooms, television, and anything else they took for granted until now, and their only goal is to survive until they can get out.
I enjoyed this introduction, the means of describing Yolanda’s unexplained arrival at an undisclosed location as jarringly as she experiences it. “She fell but stumbled, recovering, upright. All the stoner’s placidness was gone now; he [a guard] shoved at her… as he forced her through a different door and Yolanda went sprawling, exactly as a sheep would totter down a slatted chute into the shocking light and shit and terror of the sheep yard.” In that different room, we meet Boncer and Teddy, the guards, and Verla, whose hand Yolanda takes when she’s first taken away, and about 10 other girls. As Yolanda and Verla get to know the others, it becomes clear what all these girls have in common, and why they’re here, wherever “here” is. They’ve all been “bad girls,” abused or raped or accused of being sluts, or accused of being something for which this is the punishment. But after weeks of being locked up and chained, made to labor on a never-ending task, with little to eat or drink, they find ways to fight back. Is their fighting natural? Is it revengeful or redemptive? Is it cunning? Does it work? Naturally, I loved that it is all of the above and nothing that I expected.
The climax of the drama is a bizarre creation within a creation that reflects the absurdity and wonder of the whole work. What Verla and Yolanda make at Hetty’s request (Hetty is a self-proclaimed scapegoat) is marvelous. Just as the other girls don’t know what to make of it, we’re left to decide if we can move forward to the end of the book or stop now before it gets any weirder. I chose option A and proceeded to the finale, to how each prisoner, guards and girls alike, each decides to respond to a chance to escape.
Natural, as defined by Wood, doesn’t mean inevitable or destined, but wrought by human hands. Natural means the way the creator, in this case Charlotte Wood, intends. She invokes Walt Whitman as poet in the midst of this “natural” un-wonderland. Verla’s lover gave her a collection of Whitman she recalls in her darkest moments, sure Andrew will come and save her. I enjoyed Whitman in this setting; he is the perfect spokesperson for humans turned animal, who become humane in the process. Whitman says, “’you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me… and parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestrip heart.’” It is hard to tell if the actions are loving or violent, or both. So too, the pleasure of this read is not learning how things work out, but how they don’t. The book doesn’t call for things to make sense, rather, it says – the girls demand – “Look at me!” We aren’t forced to listen; we are compelled to by craftsmanship, and want to respond with attention and care. Here is how we find the girls before winter, after months of imprisonment.
Verla had her mushroom project, collecting and sorting and hiding. Rhiannon tramped off to the ute skeleton every day, driving herself to an imaginary coast. Leandra chopped kindling and fed the stove, playing house with Barbs, who carried the stockpot around, playing Little House on the Prairie with an infant doll to play with. Joy and Izzy and Lydia had their tweezers and makeovers and mantras (the skin is the body’s largest organ, Lydia preached to Joy and Izzy, who nodded reverently, picking through each other’s hair for nits). Maitlynd squatted by the tank feeding her fat lurking frog, or patrolled the windowsills, collecting moths.”
I’ll leave you there, wanting to hear what becomes of them.