The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

29604977._sy475_Fiction – Kindle edition. Europa Editions, 2016. Originally published 2015. 208 pgs. Purchased.

Yolanda and Verla awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves in an unfamiliar room wearing “stupid Amish clothes” and under guard by two men in boiler suits. Neither woman knows how or why she ended up here; neither woman feels like they can really trust the other enough to ask. Perhaps, after all, they are on a demented version of ‘Survivor’ or ‘Big Brother’ where they have to outwit and outlast as individuals?

The women are subjected to brutal experiences: first, at the hands of their two guards who quickly become power hungry and then, later, when power and food supplies are cut off from the prison they’re being held out. The story is a take on the Stanford prison experiment, but the truly unique element to the story is why the woman have become imprisoned somewhere in Australia.

Slowly, over the course of a year, the why is revealed to these two women along the reader and the other women they are eventually held captive with. So, I hesitate to spoil too much of the reason for those who may want to read it. I will say, the book does serve as a response to our digital world where it is easy to quickly shame women for their behavior, particularly around sex. The reason why some where locked away was particularly astonishing to me.

Wood’s novel provides a compelling and biting critique, which is exactly what I’m looking for in dystopian novels, but I also appreciated how nuanced she tried to be with her condemnation. Much of the story focuses on the dynamics between the women locked up rather than why they are there, and she doesn’t shy away as painting them as shallow or vindictive. Products of their society, yes, but not wholly innocent or unworthy of critiques themselves.

The descriptive writing of this novel stands out; it was, unfortunately, easy to imagine both the setting and the events of the novel in my head. I’ve been advised that this book is quite a departure from Wood’s previous novels (I picked it up solely because of its dystopian classification), but the writing is so stellar that I could be tempted to try more of her work.

‘The Natural Way of Things’ won the Stella Prize in 2016.

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