I rarely do a book response for people I know, or local authors, because it can be a tricky, sticky thing. But I was just at Sue’s (Whispering Gums – you can read her review here as well as the reader comments) website reading her review of Charlotte Wood’s latest novel, The Natural Way of Things.
Disclosure: Charlotte and I share a publisher in Allen & Unwin, and also editor in the magnificent Jane Palfreyman. So you can take what I say with a grain of salt if you like, but really, I think we all know this book is enjoying its stratospheric rise because so many people rate it, and my piddling comments aren’t going to affect its destiny one way or the other. It is going absolute gang-busters and I saw this morning it’s been featured in the Huff Post too, which is amazing. My other disclosure is that I’ve met and corresponded with Charlotte and she is a lovely, generous, smart, funny woman.
I’ve been thinking about this book a lot. Reading people’s reviews, seeing reader comments, there does seem to be a split between people getting it and loving it and thinking it amazing, and other people left disappointed or unsatisfied. While writing a comment on Sue’s website, provoked out of inaction by a comment by another reader, I finally managed to articulate what it is I think about this book. You see, before now I’ve been very careful when making comments face-to-face in conversation with people, as well as around the internet traps. Yes I’ve been calling it brilliant and saying it deserves all the accolades and attention it is getting, and have been saying that sincerely. But I still hadn’t worked out what I really thought about it, or why. Now I think I’ve understood it. Here’s my comment from Whispering Gums:
I think that the ‘flaws’ Annette mentions above are not flaws at all. That they were deliberate and well-thought out (and yes, we don’t know what changes the US editor asked for, would be interesting to know). To me it’s clear the book is meant as allegory; the women represent women, yes, and the men (and the nurse) represent men and men’s interests/society – the controlling forces that want to manage female sexuality. I took the whole thing as a comment about gender, and how the social mores you refer to Sue are limiting for people of all gender identifications, but in terms of who loses most, it’s women and girls. Always has been, probably always will, which is the ‘natural way of things.’ Not saying it’s right or just or I think that’s okay, it just is or seems to be. I believed the book was not to be read literally*, I think it’s possible that the flatness of the characters, and even Yolanda and Verla, was also deliberate, to contribute to the deadened, hopeless effect. (I don’t have a problem with so-called flat characters, in fact I like them. I don’t like to be told everything about a character.) The unidentified, faceless enemy of which the guards and nurse were agents (they were as used by ‘the system’ as the girls, and became as weirdly resigned and passive when abandoned) to me represented the great social machine that creates the rules and enforces them, almost invisibly or without people really being aware of it, or challenging it. The ending was perfect. No, not satisfying in that information was withheld, but not meant to be. That would have been a cop-out, and the falling upon the makeup and sample bags etc was also showing ‘the natural way of things’ – how things don’t change, people are predictable, people are living their lives asleep, plus ça change and so on. For me, it’s a brilliant book, and it’s great to see a novel tackling large themes that aren’t domestic. I would have liked to have some hope in the ending, and I’m not sure there is any there. But that is perfect in its way – it’s as if there is no hope when it comes to the ‘gender war’. (Disclosure: Charlotte and I share the same publisher and editor.) (Second disclosure: I didn’t write a response to this book for my blog even though I read it ages ago. I’ve been cogitating and have only realised now, in writing this comment, that these are my thought about the book and how marvellous a book it is. Before now I’d been unsure about it too. Perhaps another brilliant and deliberate attempt to unsettle the reader as we sometimes need to be.)
Of course, it’s opinion as are the comments of everyone else, and people own their responses to books and films and art. I just thought it was time I threw my hat in the ring with regards to this book. (Is that even a saying?)
PS I think it will win the Miles Franklin, though I read and loved Black Rock, White City; Leap (another A&U/Palfreyman book) and Salt Creek, and think all of them worthy winners as well. It’s an exciting year for awards, a super strong field and some wonderful fiction. I can’t wait to see what each of these authors bring us next, although I can say I’ve seen something of Alec Patric’s next novel, Atlantic Black, and it’s a brilliant premise, and, of course, stunningly written.
Edit: I’ve come back and read over my post, and inserted an asterisk. * – I think it IS meant to be read literally but also metaphorically, that it was done in such a way so as to work on both levels. The reader looking for literal meaning will find it; the one happy to sit with ambiguity will find that as well. Clever.