Accidental Critic: The Natural Way of Things
A young woman awakens in a room she doesn’t recognize, wearing clothing she’s never seen, with no idea where she is other than the middle of nowhere. She assumes she is in a mental asylum—we’ve no idea yet as to why—and doesn’t know if she is mad. She is frightened and alone.
In an adjacent room sits another young woman, equally bewildered as to her whereabouts, certain only that she has been drugged, struggling to remember the events that brought her to an unfamiliar place. She is as alone as the first, until a door opens and the other woman enters this room. The door closes, and the two are together, confused and frightened.
Thus are Yolanda Kovacs and Verla Learmont thrown together at the start of a months-long imprisonment in the opening pages of Charlotte Wood’s marvelous novel The Natural Way of Things. As we soon learn, they are two of ten young women who have been taken prisoner either through trickery or against their will, and forced into seemingly purposeless labor in what we can only hope is an extralegal operation—because the alternative is too horrible and unholy to fathom.
What brought these ten women together is that each was at the center of a sex scandal that threatened some sort of entrenched system or powerful man: a gang rape by footballers, an extramarital affair with a government official, a teen-age girl sexually abused by a cardinal. Together they find themselves struggling to survive in a dystopian prison camp “managed”—through a combination of violence, threats and fear—by three untrained and ill-equipped people perhaps no older than themselves.
I don’t want to give away the plot. This is a deep, rich novel that deserves to be read. Lush despite its harsh setting, the book inundates the senses with sounds and imagery and emotion. It’s filled with animals—birds, insects, snakes, lizards, kangaroos, a horse (perhaps), a fish—and with both noises and silence. It’s dense with love, friendship and hatred; and it simultaneously explores community and separation, the human urges both to band together and to stand apart and above. Madness permeates it, and it’s hard to know just who is mad and who sane, what is real and what imagined.
It is most definitely bleak, sometimes almost devastatingly so. But it’s also full of promise and hope. And freedom. And even humor, albeit dark humor.
The Natural Way of Things may leave you with questions. It did me. I got to the end of the book and started right back in at the beginning, reading it a second time through with notebook at hand, jotting down images and words, thoughts, ideas. I enjoyed it as much on second reading as first because there’s so much more going on than plot (and the plot is itself awfully compelling). It is mesmerizing and imaginative and challenging, and I’m richer for having read it. Twice.
Kim Kishbaugh is no kind of artist at all, but a lover of art in many different forms. She travels through life with an open mind and open eyes in search of magic, and sometimes finds it. She is Escape Into Life‘s social media editor and a long-time journalist with an unsettling history of seeing the companies she works for go out of business. She blogs occasionally at kkish.net.