In 2010 and 2011 the Melbourne media was filled with stories about a “St Kilda Schoolgirl”, a branding courtesy of the news reporters based on the seventeen-year-old having a consensual sexual relationship with the Australian Rules football player, Sam Gilbert from the St Kilda Football club. The media then had an absolute frenzy over her later sexual “relationship” with 47-year-old football player agent Ricky Nixon and the controversy has continued in recent times with the girl in question failing in her court attempts to stop the release of Nixon’s biography.
At the same time the CEO of one of Australia’s largest retailers, David Jones, resigned in the wake of a sexual harassment complaint from a staff member from their marketing department. He walked away with close to a $2 million payout and his statement to the media said:
“At two recent company functions I behaved in a manner unbecoming of the high standard expected of a chief executive officer to a female staff member.
“As a result of this conduct I have offered my resignation to the David Jones board and we have agreed on the mutual termination of my employment with the company, effective immediately.
“As a chief executive officer and as a person I have a responsibility to many, and today I formally acknowledge that I have committed serious errors of judgment and have inexcusably let down the female staff member. I have also let down my partner, my family, all my staff, the board and our shareholders. I apologise to everyone I have let down.
“In resigning immediately it is my hope that I will minimise the impact of my errors of judgment on all and on David Jones, a company I have been proud to be employed by for 13 years and have had the honour of leading for the last 7 years.
“I would like to thank my colleagues for their support during my time with the company. I am very sorry to be leaving in these circumstances and wish all involved with David Jones continued success.
“My partner and I will be overseas for the foreseeable future.”
These are just two examples of the media reports from Australia and I am sure there would be a plethora of similar reports throughout the western world.
But what has that got to do with reviewing books? Recently shortlisted for the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, Charlotte Wood’s “The Natural Way of Things” is an allegorical tale that delves deep into the world of sexual misconduct, predator behaviour and the preconceived notions of the male offenders walking away from their actions whilst the women are left to deal with their demons.
Our novel has two protagonists, Verla and Yolanda, who suddenly wake, after being drugged, in a facility where they are forced to wear course modest clothing, have their heads shaved, are marched mercilessly for miles, fed poor rations, drink bore water and sleep in run-down shearer’s cottages, all without talking. What has happened to them? What is their link (there are a number of other girls in the same predicament)? Why are they there? Slowly we leave of each of their pasts, and intern who had an affair with a high ranking politician, a high profile sex case with footballers, is this what links them?
Before dawn she wakes again with the birds. Kookaburras, cockatoos, somewhere far off. Her back aches, she needs desperately to piss. Light seams the door and the window slot, cracks between the iron panels, softly at first, then in sharp bright lines. The room…it is not a room – what is it? A shed, a stall of animals. A kennel with a dirty wooden floor and corrugated-iron walls battened with wood. A kennel bog enough to stand up in, to contain a single iron-framed bed.
This novel is not a comfortable read, as it forces you to confront the everyday preconceptions, bias, humiliation of young women being forced to confront who they are?
What would people in their old lives be saying about these girls? Would they be called missing? Would some documentary program on the ABC that nobody watched, or one of those thin newspapers nobody read, somehow connect their cases, find the thread to make them a story? The Lost Girls, they could be called. Would it be said, they ‘disappeared’, ‘were lost’? Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves, they marshalled themselves into this prison where they had made their beds, and now, once more, were lying in them.
As I would rather not contain spoilers in my reviews I’ll have to let you read this on your own to know the fate of the girls trapped in remote Australia, with three guards, who also seem to be trapped. This is not the usual style of novel that I read, nor review on my blog, however as it was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 2016, I borrowed a copy from my local library and although unlike my usual “eclectic” reads it is a worthwhile novel to read. It raises a number of pertinent points about female sexuality, about male predatory behaviour, about social norms, language. It brought to mind language and the common usage of phrases such as “domestic violence victim”, “sexual assault victim”, instead of “he hit her”, “he raped her”, the female being the “victim” instead of the male being the perpetrator.
Reminiscent of Emma Donoghue’s “Room” but with a more hopeless edge, this is a dystopian novel about capture, of being trapped even though you may have escaped, of not being able to find a way out of your own existence, it’s not a case of “where you are” but “who you are”?
As the high profile cases I highlighted in my opening, the men involved in these cases have moved on, and in some cases are making money from their behaviour, whereas the women involved are still harbouring the scars of these men’s behaviour. Put that to an allegorical backdrop and you have Charlotte Wood’s latest novel, a thought provoking and brave novel, one that may not be comfortable to read, but one that would surely elicit a lot of discussion around the book-club tables.