I recently read Charlotte Wood‘s fifth novel, The Natural Way of Things. Highly acclaimed and penned by a well-respected Australian author, I thought it would be a perfect starting point for The Australian Women Writers Challenge. But the more I read, the more I worried about writing a review. There were so many things I loved about the book, but also quite a few that I didn’t. How could I write a review which reflected my thoughts honestly, without denigrating the book? After all, I’m still fairly new to the reviewing process.
A quick google search on 14 February 2017, (I realise, given the novel’s misogyny theme, that I could have picked a better date), showed the book had racked up 4,660 ratings & 971 reviews on Goodreads, 104 ratings & 76 reviews on Amazon, and countless blog reviews and news articles. I don’t think the world’s going to miss mine.
But I did want to write about the things I learnt from this novel. I’m glad I didn’t toss it into the ‘too hard’ basket and I can only hope that some of the author’s writing has lodged itself into my subconscious.
This is what I learnt:
I hadn’t read as widely as I previously thought
Up until now I’ve patted myself on the back, saying ‘yes, I read anything and everything’. Children’s, romance, popular, literary, memoir, crime/thrillers, historical, short stories, blog posts, tweets, newsletters, school reports – you get the idea. But Dystopian Fiction? It’s ok, I don’t mind the enlightened among you scoffing at this revelation, but just incase you’re thinking ‘what the?’ like I was, according to Wikipedia (which is completely different to Robinpedia), a dystopia is a society characterized by a focus on that which is contrary to the author’s ethos, such as mass poverty, public mistrust and suspicion, a police state or oppression. Had I done a little homework prior to reading this book, I believe my mindset would have been different as I read it.
BTW, I do remember reading Lord of The Flies and George Orwell’s 1984 at school, so I’m not totally uneducated, but I don’t recall the word ‘dystopian’ being used to describe these books – both of which I loved.
When to persevere with a novel
I made at least four failed attempts to read this book before committing to an accountability group that I would finish it. On the other hand, I had also made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t battle on with a book that wasn’t grabbing me. Note to self: if the author is highly respected, the book has received critical acclaim or has been shortlisted for a literary award – then suck it up and get on with it. The author is obviously doing something right and I’m here to learn what that ‘right’ thing might be. If the book has no such credentials and I’m not enjoying it, I’ll donate it to an op shop or return it to the library so that someone else can.
Using pacing, sense of place etc
I could feel the silence at the beginning of the book. I could see Verla’s bleeding blisters as the skin slipped off her heels. I could taste the dry, uncooked packet-noodles the girls ate.
The beginning of the novel unfolds like a sedative wearing off. It opens slowly, thickly, worryingly; without hysterics. The reader slowly comes to understand the despair of the situation at the same time the characters do. The term ‘pacing’ tends to fly out of author’s mouths when discussing the craft of writing, however this is one book where the concept of pacing really struck me.
The timing of the novel was set over Summer, Autumn and Winter – representing a period of nine months (tied to a woman’s ability to give life). The fact that spring (the season of birth and new life) wasn’t mentioned in the novel speaks volumes of the girl’s ultimate fate. Honestly. What sort of genius thinks up these things?
The sense of place was inspired. The Australian outback setting reinforced the girls’ isolation. The run-down, deserted sheep station used to imprison them symbolises a sheep-herding mentality. The location was so well depicted that I believed in the possibility that such a place might exist.
The narrative voice further strengthened a feeling of isolation. It was as though I was reading from a distance, almost watching a movie, feeling as helpless as the characters.
The concept of character agency crystallised for me as I read this novel, as did its different applications in commercial and literary genres. In commercial fiction, character agency is important because it helps to create engagement with the reader. A character’s actions move the plot forward, they aren’t just reacting to everything that happens to them. The character is motivated and has an ability to make decisions that determine the outcome of the story. It’s easier to be on a character’s side when they’re acting with agency.
In The Natural Way Of Things, the girls are prisoners. Subject to brutal beatings if they dare challenge authority. They have no access whatsoever to external support and are totally reliant on their captors. They have no choice but to react instead of act. They are helpless throughout a great deal of this book – in fact, for me the novel became most interesting at the midpoint reversal. Yolanda gains power over the antagonist, Boncer, by catching rabbits and therefore providing a vital food source as rations run low. I have no doubt the early absence of character agency was intentional – possibly a device to make the reader feel just as helpless as the captive women. It’s interesting that in the backstory, the women acted with a great deal of agency – speaking out about their sexual abuse at the hands of powerful men. However, it was those actions that resulted in their being punished and sent to wither into oblivion. Thus further supporting the theme that women have no true agency in a world dominated by men.
Even respected writers get unfavourable reviews
The average rating for this book on Goodreads was 3 1/2 stars – the same average rating as 50 Shades of Grey. Gone Girl achieved 4 1/2 stars. Whilst there were many favourable reviews for NWOT, others weren’t so kind. One Goodreads reviewer went so far as to say ‘it was the novel equivalent of Oscar bait’. (Why people feel they have to write such things is beyond me. They’ve obviously never tried to write a book themselves). In spite of the apparent preference for Gone Girl on Goodreads, NWOT has already won some prestigious awards: Joint winner of the 2016 Prime Ministers Literary Award for Fiction in Australia, the 2016 Stella Prize, and the 2016 Indie Book of the Year. It has been shortlisted for many more.
It just goes to show that not everyone will be a fan of your work – no matter who you are or what you wrote. Try to enjoy the good reviews and ignore the bad. And if you write reviews yourself – please take in care in what you say. You are judging the product of a mind-boggling amount of work and effort, not just from the writer, but also their editors, agents and publishers.
If you ever want to read a novel just for fun – don’t learn to write!
I’m sure I will never attain Charlotte Wood’s literary status, but I try to attend as many writing workshops and events as I can. I now pick apart every book I read – trying to learn different things from each and every one (including the books I read to my children at night). I can no longer read a book for the pure sake of it. However, this I don’t mind. I think it makes the read more challenging and ultimately more enjoyable. Would you agree?
How about you? Do you read books critically? Have you read The Natural Way of Things?