So.. finished Charlotte Wood’s new novel … and need to share something.

I was thrilled to pick up a copy at last week’s launch

charlotte

and have been gingerly consuming it since. I thought it would be an all-nighter, but in fact it required slow, measured digestion: it’s a rich brew. Like Verla testing the mushrooms for death caps, you have to be careful. The thing with real writing is that you can’t stand outside it, looking in. I normally race through novels and most leave little trace. The Road is still with me, indelible, from recent years, and Michel Faber’s Book of Strange New Things. What else? Perhaps Charlotte’s book has just wiped my literary memory. The point is that her writing is so exact, so physical, that racing is not really an option. You have to taste the bitter weeds.

Others have summarised the situation – this review from the SMH, for example: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/the-natural-way-of-things-by-charlotte-wood-a-novel-born-from-anger-20150922-gjrmhs.html

and other have pinpointed the exquisite prose: http://elizabethlhuede.com/2015/09/24/the-natural-way-of-things-by-charlotte-wood/

I only have two things to add. As the book unfolded, it seemed to me that it was a story about bodies. Who owns them, internally and externally. The men owning the women’s bodies, unquestioningly; the women drugged or co-opted into compliance. But the women are absent from their own bodies too, at first, during abuse, and perhaps not only then. Yolanda’s story is one of occupation, first by others, then, slowly, by herself, her meat self, and finally beyond bodies into the merged animal world. Verla protects the object of her continuing affection, the one who brought her body into vivid reality, by hating others, until that comfort is removed and her body is understood as the screen of male desire, the empty space for his longing. While there are no Aboriginal characters, echoes of Terra Nullius, forced removals, and the colonised body are strongly present.

As I said earlier this is an astonishingly physical book – the women’s bones are broken, bodies are burnt, they bleed, suppurate, vomit and fart. Once in a very rare while, they sing. Simple physical existence become the overwhelming imperative as the book unfolds  – but that too is seen from different perspectives. Yolanda becomes Diana the Hunter, others form grooming pods (sprouting pubic hair is as shocking to the perpetually waxed as is was to John Ruskin). The embodied, grounded detail demands your absolute attention, moving beyond the particular.

I remember finishing the Women’s Room when it came out and the plummeting recognition of how patriarchy co-opts women. This book shows the choices available to women, from collusion to despair to resistance: it’s a bleak, narrow spectrum. I know Verla too well, unable to bear the indifference of her beloved, telling stories of matching grief until they can no longer be sustained.

My other observation – and it’s been made by most reviewers – is the detailed engineering of every single sentence. I suspect this is only possible if the writer is so immersed in the book’s reality that only this noun, that adverb will suffice. Several reviewers have mentioned that is an angry book – as if a book about the abuse and detention of women could not be – but I wonder if it is the control of language which indicates this rage, rather than the stories. The very punctuation becomes an act of defiance, of reclamation.

A rich, bloody, rabbit stew that you have to catch and skin for yourself. Read.

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