A review by Nalini Haynes
Yolanda was gang raped by a group of footballers so, as punishment, she was sent to a concentration camp in the Australian bush. When she was abducted, she realized what was happening and she fought. The other 9 women sent to this camp were deceived, drugged and abducted.
Verla was a married minister’s mistress; after his affair was exposed, she was shipped off to the camp. She dreams of a white horse coming to her rescue, she dreams of her lover coming to find her.
Upon their awakening they discover their clothes are missing, replaced with 1950s garb and bonnets that constrict, conceal. Shades of The Handmaid’s Tale are revealed right from the outset.
Boncer and Terry are their captors, chaining the women up while Boncer dreams of raping the sluts and bitches under their control. The language embedded in the book is violent, abusive and derogatory, just like society’s attitude towards women, especially women who are raped and women who are mistresses.
Over the coming months conditions in the camp deteriorate. Pecking orders evolve even within the group of prisoners. One woman must be sacrificed to slake Boncer’s sexual desire to save them all from his violent outbursts — and yet the women despise their sacrifice for becoming, again, the victim.
Boncer’s beating stick and, later, the spear gun represent the conch in Lord of the Flies. Piggy’s role is shared around the women. The absence of civilization, the deteriorating conditions, are the island. The group waits and hopes for the submarine commander to arrive and rescue them.
As social commentary, The Natural Way of Things is an astute exposé. However, the literary nature of this novel creates plot pitfalls. After the first drinks in the camp, they drink only bore water and yet one woman seems to suffer from a salt deficiency. When the power goes off the water supply continues and yet there’s no mention of a windmill, no problem with still weather cutting supply. The women start to build a road to nowhere using only their hands and sticks but, later, there’s a shovel. The electric fence keeps them prisoner but they don’t try digging under it, not even with rocks and sticks when they know they could starve. The men disappear all day — to where? They’re prisoners too. This is not nearly an exhaustive list of issues with the plot; The Natural Way of Things prioritizes symbolism and the form of literature over story.
Some have acclaimed The Natural Way of Things as science fiction for its parallels with The Handmaid’s Tale and Lord of the Flies; I disagree. Although Margaret Atwood disavows SF, positioning herself as a Literature author, I agree that The Handmaid’s Tale, with its near-future dystopian setting, can be classified as SF. I disagree that Lord of the Flies is SF: there is no science fiction element to be found in the story, ‘merely’ deep observations of individuals and society in a Robinson Crusoe setting. Like Lord of the Flies, The Natural Way of Things is concerned with observations, exposing the thin veneer of civilization. Like Lord of the Flies, The Natural Way of Things has no element of science fiction: this camp could be situated in the here and now, these women experience the revulsion of society for God’s Whores and Damned Police. (I know Greer’s title: this subversion is intentional.)
The Natural Way of Things has received acclaim for exposing the underbelly of society’s view of women. It may have received two or three awards — the full list of awards, short-listings and long-listings is below. I highly recommend The Natural Way of Things for its sociological spelunking and use of literature forms.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Format: ebook, equivalent of 320 pages
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Winner, Indie Book of the Year, 2016
Winner, Indie Book Awards – Best Fiction, 2016
Winner, The Stella Prize, 2016
Short-listed, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award – Fiction Category, 2016
Short-listed, ABA Nielsen BookData Booksellers Choice Award, 2016
Short-listed, Australian Book Industry Awards – Literary Fiction Book of the Year, 2016
Long-listed, Miles Franklin Literary Award, 2016
Long-listed, Nita B Kibble Award for an Established Author, 2016