This is a really tough book to write about, and I did question whether to write this post at all. Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things is a dystopian tale where society’s misogynistic treatment of women who express their sexuality is taken to its logical, horrifying conclusion. Inspired by the Hay Institution for Girls, there is a undeniable reality to to the story she has created. After waking from a drugged sleep, a group of women unknown to each other wake in the middle of the desert, abducted and trapped.
It becomes clear that all these women have in common is their involvement in a high-profile sex scandal. The stories are all different – professors, footballers; affairs, rape – but the publicity is not. They are the women society loves to hate, shamed for their role as a victim, or a lover, treated by different standards than those for men. These characters’ stories are recognisable as being taken straight from the headlines. Where they find themselves is an extension of this treatment. They have already been abused, shouted at, shamed by their communities, and now they are drugged, put on a bus, driven for hours to wake up here. Heads are shaved, they are stripped and dressed in clothes from the early 20th Century, they are isolated, made to work hard, their worth and their bodies constantly beat into the ground.
The tale does turn into one of friendship, but there is very little light in this book. The women are overseen by two pretty gross men – with the unspoken sexual threat of their presence a constant element of the power relationship – and one insipid ‘nurse’, are fed on crap, denied all technology, sleep in dog boxes. It is almost too extreme – the cleanliness denied, the physical labour undertaken, the malnutrition.
It is uncomfortable reading, a horror scenario. It already makes me feel angry watching how women are treated in the media – how simply the language utilised to report the news so clearly shapes the story to deny agency to a female victim, to heroise or centre on a male subject (and that is even before the opinion columnists come in) – so extending this misogyny to an act is awful, frankly. A terrible place to spend time. But this book has been lauded, shortlisted, promoted as this antidote to the way we treat women.
And away from the concepts, the ideas behind Wood’s novel, I find it lacking. The premise is fascinating but what happens afterward is an ongoing let down. The characters are poorly developed, dull stereotypes used for the three who manage the group of women. The writing is talented, but too often deployed to describe the detail of horror, pain, disgust, sheer madness of the mind.
Why do we need this story? Perhaps it is not for me. I am already highly aware of the unconscious misogyny in our society, how we get treated more harshly for the same behaviour as men – be it for expressing anger or for expressing sexuality – so to read the relentless suffering of the women in this situation where the patriarchy is made flesh is not powerful, or interesting, or challenging. It is not ‘explosive’ or revelatory. It is depressing, exhausting, brutal. I am done with it. I live every day in the world that Wood’s story metaphorising and I don’t need any more. So read this book if you need to hear this story, but if you already know the world we live in, save yourself, and take a break from it somewhere else.