Stripped of their clothing, their heads shaven – What crime did these women commit?

She hears her own thick voice deep inside her ears when she says, “I need to know where I am.”
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She hears her own thick voice deep inside her ears when she says, “I need to know where I am.” The man stands there, tall and narrow, hand still on the doorknob, surprised. He says, almost in sympathy, ‘Oh, sweetie. You need to know what you are. 

Two young women wake from a drugged sleep to discover they are imprisoned in an old shack in the middle of nowhere and have no understanding of how they came to be there. Bewildered and afraid, they are soon joined by eight other young women, all stripped of their own clothing and dressed in hessian sacks, heads shaved, their nightmare begins in The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood.

the-natural-way-of-things-coverTheir guards, two misogynistic misfits together with a “nurse” are to oversee their punishing hard labour in sweltering conditions. Fed on basic rations they gradually come to realise they all have something in common. Each has been involved in a sexual scandal with a powerful man and this is to be the price they are expected to pay.

Each day is an endurance test as they battle to build a stone road, for what purpose is unclear. One day they are all chained together and taken on a trek which ends at the top of a hill where they are confronted by a large electrified fence where the realisation hits them all; they are not going to escape this hell unless someone sets them free.

After presumably several months their food supplies begin to run low and the extra food and medical supplies which were supposed to have arrived by now, have failed to turn up. The guards, realising they are also trapped start to turn on each other, which suits their captives very well, allowing them some relief from the constant abuse.

Yolande, one of the stronger girls, beings to hunt rabbits and manages to successfully keep them alive – just. Verla, another strong character and Yolande, have become close friends and their friendship sustains them through some very gruelling times. Verla begins to experiment with wild mushrooms and in her determined digging, discovers a poisonous variety which she plans to have the guards ingest. Each of the girls begins to work together as a team to try to survive, hoping they will be released or rescued from their tormentors eventually.

Although I didn’t much enjoy this novel, I somehow found myself having to keep turning the page. The story just became more grim and desolate with time. It is well written in that it evokes the futility and hopelessness, the misogyny and persecution visited upon these hapless women and actions they finally take against their jailors I completely understood.

I suppose if there is a moral to this story it is how women are forced to bear the blame for men’s weakness in finding them attractive and the tendency of some men to enjoy persecuting women because they can.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood, is available from Dymocks in either paperback or eBook format

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