The Natural Way Of Things by Charlotte Wood is a multi-layered novel with many complex and well-developed characters. It begins as a mesmerizing tale of women in captivity. How did they get there? Who are their captors? Why were they selected for capture and extended confinement? The reader will be immediately presented with all these questions. Some will be answered as details are presented slowly and in an obscure manner as a tale of survival unfolds. Questions about some of the captives’ backgrounds will only be answered by reader imagination. This tale of captivity, survival, and human cruelty is a modern-day horror story.
The number of characters is large. Charlotte Wood develops each character to illustrate a set of human frailties. How will each character react to extreme, life-threatening adversity? Will each character be able to appreciate her own change? The changes come about primarily to the women captives although there is one female captor as well as two males. The female captor character is well developed, the two males less so. Looking at the characters, we have:
Yolanda: She had a boyfriend, Robbie, who was only interested in himself. He may have had a hand in her captivity.
Verla: the political girl A lot of her time will be spent self-interpreting her dreams. This may have something to do with mushrooms. She feels superior to the other captives and is sure she will soon be released.
Isobell (Izzy): the airline girl.
Hetty: the cardinal’s girl.
Maitlynd: the school principal’s head girl.
Barbs: the rough, independent girl. She is injured early in the captivity to serve as an example to others.
Rhiannon: the gamer girl.
Lydia: the cruise ship girl.
Leandra: The Army girl.
Joy: The Asian girl, a singer.
All the captives have been judged to be promiscuous, loose, sluttish women with no morals. It is hinted to be the reason for their captivity. They have all been “handed over” by some significant other.
Nancy: She is not part of the captives, instead she works with Teddy and Bonce as a captor. Her role seems to be a nurse, that is the good news. The bad news is she has no medical training.
Teddy: One of the captors, a diver who likes his own company as he meditates. He can’t avoid occasional interactions with Bonce and Nancy as they work together to manage the captives. Teddy and Nancy will have a romantic relationship; Teddy will not attempt to molest the other captives (at first).
Bonce: A captor and a thoroughly unlikeable guy. He would like to molest all the captives but is prevented from doing so by his boss, the unknowable and never to appear “Hardings.”
The captive women wake up to the reality of their captivity. When they are finally able to communicate with each other, they relate to each other the moments just before they are “handed over” to an agent that transported them to the camp. They are initially under the control of Bonce and Teddy; the existence of Nancy is a rumor. The women are kept apart, their heads are shaved, they are locked daily into separate compartments, and are fed barely enough to keep them alive. Most of the food is in the form of unrecognizable gruel; taste is not a factor. On a tour of the facility, taken when they are chained together on a type of chain gang, they are allowed the knowledge that the compound is surrounded by electrified fencing which will kill any attempting to get over it. The captives are frequently gratuitously hit, kicked, and tortured by Bonce with something resembling a leather sap. Teddy observes.
At some point, electricity to the compound fails although that is not true of electricity to the fence. Food begins to run out. The length of the captivity can be deduced from the chapter titles: Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Somewhere in mid-Autumn the food is all but gone and the captives are eating plants and anything they can scrounge. Yolanda finds some animal traps and begins to trap, kill, and eat rabbits. Vera discovers mushrooms to season the rabbit stew. By this point, it should be obvious to the captors that they are just another type of captive but they never explicitly admit this. They just share in the misery.
As the women begin to scramble in a search for food, they each develop a way to deal with their captivity; they choose a favorite activity to fill the day. The captors are reduced to the role of observers; the torture and punishments decrease. Yolanda retreats into and is consumed by trapping rabbits. Vera gathers mushrooms of all types and, knowing that some may be poisonous, keeps a record of the types she believes them to be. Joy, Izzy, and Lydia spend their time grooming each other in a setting without showers, or soap. Maitlynd takes care of her pet frog and collects moths. Hetty spent time in prayer until she got the doll. Leandra chopped kindling for the cooking fire. Barbs tended to the stockpot in which everything was dumped into and cooked. Rhiannon sat for hours in the skeleton of an abandoned vehicle.
Through all of this, relationships change. No one wants to sleep with Bonce but it becomes obvious that someone must be sacrificed for the common good. Remember Hetty and the doll? How did she get it in the middle of a situation that did not include toys? Captives will get sick. Who will take care of them? It must be a volunteer captive. People will die. How will captives and captors relate to death?
The action is fast paced for a novel that seems so constricted in terms plot and scene. The complexity of the characters makes for slow reading in a novel that is 320 pages. That is because the reader is forced to think and contemplate background scenarios only hinted at. The conclusion will not please all and, in its vagueness will stay with the reader for a long time.