Friday, 29 July 2016

Charlotte Wood's The natural way of things

When our group met this month to discuss Charlotte Wood's Stella Prize winning novel The natural way of things, it was a case of the realists facing off against the willing suspenders of disbelief, with a couple of fence-sitters in between - and ne'er the twain did meet. It all made, however, for a lively, but always respectful, discussion!

The realists couldn't work out why the ten women hadn't ganged up to overpower their two guards, why they didn't work out they could dig their way out under the electric fence. The women were twits, one said. They should have fought back. She also felt the rabbit trapping was far more successful than you'd expect and that the book had the longest mushroom season ever! It just wasn't plausible. The willing suspenders, on the other hand, talked more about about the book in terms of metaphor, allegory and parable, though they didn't all agree on which of these the book represents, if any! Some also felt that Wood, in the opening scenes, showed the disempowering of the women, explaining why they didn't fight back.

One issue we grappled with was some vagueness in the plot. It's the story of 10 women plucked ("foolishly lured and tricked") from their normal lives and transported to a nightmarish place in the outback where they are imprisoned behind an electric fence and controlled, labour-camp style, by two boorish men, bruiser Boncer and the preening Teddy. We are not given the full background but it's clear that the women are being scapegoated for their sexuality. Some had been raped or assaulted while for others the sex had been consensual (think affair with a politician or the flight attendant in a “mile-high” situation). In all cases, though, the women are being punished to protect the man/men. As time passes, and as circumstances at the facility change, the women move from disbelief and anger, through resignation, to a sort of acceptance and an attempt to make the best of their situation.

Some members struggled with the story, with its darkness and/or with the lack of full disclosure about parts of the plot. How did the women let themselves be taken there? Who had taken them? Who were Boncer and Teddy waiting for? One member particularly hates women being presented as victims, which resulted in her disliking the book. She was frustrated by their impotence. Most of those who liked the novel, agreed that they initially felt a little uncertain, for various reasons, but on reflection found the journey worthwhile, seeing it as a provocative, absorbing story about women and power, sexuality, femininity and femaleness.


Is The natural way of things a dystopian novel, like, say, Margaret Atwood's The handmaid's tale? Not all were comfortable with this idea, feeling it was too near, too real, "not that much removed from our reality", to be a true dystopia. Others felt dystopia simply means a world characterised by all that is bad or negative, and that this book satisfies that.

But what are Wood's targets? In some dystopian novels, they are clear - climate change, totalitarian regimes, for example - but it's more nebulous here. The novel was inspired by the idea that women are still being abused and scapegoated, but Wood's focus is not the trauma they experience, but in the way "femaleness" and "womanhood" is (mis)constructed in our society.  Complicating our pinpointing of targets is that partway through we realise that guards/gaolers Boncer and Teddy are also victims: this is not a simple gender dichotomy story. It's more complex, about current social system/mores that allow powerful people (more often men) to control and manipulate the less powerful (more often women).

And what about that ending? Did it offer any hope? Some of us thought Yolanda's action at the end showing her rejection of society's power plays, and Verla's finally relinquishing her long-held beliefs and attitudes about her feminine powers, contained hope.

And two words force their way through everything in Verla, pushing through all these months, through failure and fear and degradation, fighting through this last defeat. They thrust up through Verla's centre, bursting into flower in her mouth. Two words: I refuse.

But others just hated that designer handbag scene, and the way the other women leapt unthinkingly into what they wanted to see/believe.


The book has a lot characters, and we don't get to properly know them all. However, we liked getting to know the two 19-year-olds, Yolanda (rabbiter) and Verla (mushroom gatherer), and were able to feel sympathy for them. In becoming the hunter, Yolanda took back some power for herself, a member suggested, making this book a metaphorical story of power, rather than a psychologically-focused story.

We did think, though, that, psychologically, Hetty represents abused person's behaviour. We wondered about the grotesque doll the women make for her. What does its grotesqueness mean? That what she was doing represented a perverted sort of nurturing?

Landscape and nature 

Landscape description and nature imagery feature throughout in the novel. One member shared a 2010 interview with Wood in which she commented on her frequent reference to birds, saying they represent flight, escape, freedom - as they do here too:

Outside the cockatoos are starting up for the evening. Boncer sits, staring at Yolanda, running there leash slowly through his hands.

However, in this novel there are also hawks and crows, suggesting "prey" and "death", which is also relevant here.

Verla keeps seeing a white horse, which is her personal escape image, perhaps referencing the idea of a "knight on a white charger" as she believed her "cabinet minister" would save her.

Another member suggested that Yolanda's gradual reliance on and ultimate "return" to nature might be Wood suggesting that human survival is closely tied to a positive relationship with landscape and nature.

So, what is the "natural" way of things? There's irony in the title's suggestion that women "somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves", that they lured abandonment, abduction, mistreatment. Natural? No way!

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

William Thackeray's The memoirs of Barry Lyndon

Prepared by Sue B.

Our classic novel this year was The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray. A select group of four of us gathered on a winter’s night to discuss it. Our responses to it varied considerably. A couple found it a tedious read, particularly the period in Europe with his uncle, but they were glad they'd read it,  One noting that it showed how literature has moved on. Another enjoyed it as a rollicking romp and yet another enjoyed the recreation of the period and sense of an era conveyed. 

Historical details mentioned included the hair treatments such as pomander. The book was set at the time of the Seven Years War in Europe in the 1760s, but Thackeray actually wrote it about 80 years later in 1844, so it was an historical novel. One member suggested that the novel also describes the transition from the times when the aristocracy was in control to the rise of the bourgeoisie.

It was originally written as a serial so we discussed the effect this had on the style and structure of the finished book and thought this might account for some of the repetition, and thus the tediousness.

The book’s “hero” Barry Lyndon himself is the narrator and we noticed that Thackeray left us in no doubt that he was a very unreliable narrator, reminding us of this at least 3 times in footnotes. Despite his strong sense of his own "honourability", Barry is a real anti-hero, a scoundrel - even a sociopath. We compared him with the hero of the ABC TV series Rake who we thought was a much more lovable rogue, and with another Thackeray anti-hero, Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair. We wondered to what extent our opinion of him was coloured by changing social mores. For example the blurb on a 1970s edition of the book listed his offences. Missing was any mention of the blatant wife and child abuse which is so much more on our radar and so much less forgivable these days. 

We thought that Thackeray was satirising the romantic novels so popular at the time and even the clich├ęd idea of a gentleman exemplified by the novels of Sir Walter Scott for example. Barry Lyndon says of his wife: “Novel reading and vanity had turned her brain” and in a long footnote towards the end of the book Thackeray says

Do not as many rogues succeed in life as honest men? more fools than men of talent? And is it not just that the lives of this class should be described by the student of human nature as well as the actions of those fairy-tale princes, those perfect impossible heroes whom our writers love to describe? 

One of us noted that the character of Barry Lyndon was inspired by real people, including Andrew Robertson Stoney-Bowes who married the Countess of Strathmore. Another found the first line memorable: “Since the days of Adam, there has been hardly a mischief done in this world but a woman has been at the bottom of it” – which of course says more about our hero than any of the women in his story! Barry Lyndon was, as one member said, a great self-justifier. We wondered to what extent Barry Lyndon was actually in control of his own future, and whether he was addicted to gambling – which was effectively his profession.

Finally, we couldn’t help talking about the 1970s movie starring Ryan O’Neal. We remembered it mainly just as being gorgeously filmed and with a beautiful soundtrack of contemporary music.