Paperback, 320 pagesPublished October 1st 2015 by Allen & Unwin
We live in an age of official gender equality, and it’s true that a great deal has changed thanks to the resistance of women in our mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers times. We also live in a time when a great many young women shun the term ‘feminist’ and there is, in general, a regressive pull backwards. And some things are worse. There is a persistent backlash from the malignant masculine element (not all men, not all of the masculine). The loss of absolute power over women has manifested in a virulent hatred of the feminine (in both men and women by both men and women) in this element and these individuals. One of the manifestations of this is in the flourishing of rape culture, attack at the most fundamental and personal level of all – sexuality – now embedded so deeply in the culture it is hardly remarked upon, and outrage is often disappointingly tepid, or plain missing. The feminine (in both men and women) is still derided and despised, in fact more deeply so by the malignant masculine. Women’s sexuality has been ‘freed’ into odious forms of subjugation – commercial currency in the market place and a truly dismaying level of degradation in the porn industry which these days is a very lucrative forum for rape culture. That old dismaying, revolting double standard is alive and well and more dangerous than ever. It’s still all a girls fault, it is her very nature that makes it so, in fact it’s The Natural Way of Things.
Charlotte Wood has raised her voice in a clear, crystalline, articulate howl of fury against such misogyny in this, her fifth novel. And what a voice it is; fluent, powerful, lyrical, visceral. The novel might fairly be called important. A dark tale, the story feels all too plausible, like it might have already happened, just recently. It seems entirely possible, disturbingly so, that women deemed to have become inconvenient might easily be snatched out their lives in this case by an entity called Hardings (Hardy’s?), a succinct depiction of how the malignant masculine cares not one fig about morals, the law, or the individual, because it is psychotically focussed on profit and profit alone, for it’s own benefit, alone.
The girls are drugged and whisked away to disappear, possibly forever. They are imprisoned in an abandoned, broken down compound ringed by an unbreachable electric fence, in the middle of nowhere. The parallels with refugee camps and concentration camps, those depositories of other groups of people hated by the dominant powers, is pretty plain. The girls so taken have their identities and womanliness erased – their heads are shaved, they are dressed in identical rough tunics, stiff boots and Amish style bonnets. They are stripped of rights, refused basic amenities of any kind, and set to hard labour on a literal chain gang. They are told nothing, given nothing, barely spoken to except for misogynistic abuse. They are watched over by two men; ‘Boncer’, who is a stupid, violent brute with a stupid name, and Teddy, a vacuous, self-serving, boy-man who just does what he’s told and discharges himself of any further repsonsibility. Their third warden is Nancy, a skinny, dim girl, supposedly a nurse, who sides with the men. Nancy, like any patriarchal woman who has no real agency of her own, spends her energies snivelling around after the two men, wanting only their attention and approval.
The writing is fierce and darkly sensual and often confronting. The toxic violence in the language used by the men towards the women is absolutely misogynistic, and it is a bit sickening just to read it. Wood is unflinching in capturing the machinations of everyday hate, and writes with fluid fury on the page. We learn, via the vicious language of Boncer that they are:
“the ministers-little-travel-tramp and that Skype slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll number twelve and bogan gold-digger and gang bang slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.’
I don’t know about you, but writing like that feels liking being punched in the face it’s so real, so vividly accurate. I doubt anyone will miss the reference to the ‘big red box’, and the message that no woman, no matter how prominent or powerful, is safe from the long and bloodthirsty reach of patriarchy protecting itself.
And the crimes of these ten diverse girls of every hue and stripe? Sexuality that has resulted in men being compromised. The sexual actions of the errant men is not in question, it is the women who are blamed and vilified; they deserved what they got, they asked for it.
Told from the eyes of the girls themselves, they are not these hateful things, but women – one who truly loved a man who was, for her, The One. He was also also a politician. The ‘yuck-ugly-dog’ is a person –
‘on the cruise ship dance floor, chin tilted, glossy hair up, the black sequinned boob tube that was in all the photos. Those eyelashes thick with lust and mascara, wide sexy mouth, all teeth and laughing. Before everything that happened, when Lydia was just a pretty Maltese girl at a party, a little drunk and up for it, when even that drug-fucked lowlife in the muscle t-shirt might have called her Lydia instead of that thing, that black ugly dog.’
Not all of the women are victims or dupes, some were just too powerfully sexual to be tolerated, like Hetty:
‘The Catholic cardinal, the never published photographs of almost-underage Hetty, just sixteen and, it was said, lying like a fat, happy baby in the purple satin and gold brocade. What the cardinal had seen so close up, Verla knows now, was Hetty’s wet red mouth, the coarse,black eyebrows, potent with some ferocious carnality. He could see what Verla sees now, that Hetty was a little muscled dog that knew how to bite, and how to indiscriminately fuck. If she were a male the pink crayon of her dick would always be out.’
The two main characters, Verla, who truly loved, and Yolanda the beauty who was raped for it, then cast aside as used goods, quickly understand they have to come to a reckoning with all of this, they must pull the scales from their eyes if they are to survive. They, and the other girls, represent those of us blind to, or seduced by, the patriarchy and like them, we need to wake up and see it for the deadly, toxic thing it is; to both genders. The hatred of the feminine isn’t restricted to men acting on women. The feminine aspects of men are hated too, and thus Boncer is quick to call Teddy a faggott as soon as he shows any signs of sympathy for the girls. In this, Teddy represents the unaggressive men, those who won’t participate in misogyny, the homosexual, those who put love first, the weak – such men also fall under the stamping boot of hatred. To synopisize hugely Carol Gilligan in ‘The Birth of Pleasure, A New Roadmap To Love’ – power and love cannot co-exist, and patriarchy is about power.
The women do not band together just because they’re all female, in fact they are often cruel and horrible to each other, their alliances shift and fall and they are ruled by fear. Their passivity, the failure of ten able women to work together to overcome their two inadequate jailers attests to the introjection of shame and blame that disempowers women/the feminine so effectively. And, of course, women also participate in it. When Hetty suggests Yolanda give herself up to the lustful yearnings of Boncer, she fully enacts a patriarchal principle – a woman can be easily be sacrificed for the benefit of others.
‘… Hetty says slyly to Yolanda, ‘Why don’t you?’
When the other girls realise what she’s talking about they stop what they’re doing, take a breath and wait for Yolanda to turn on Hetty. With her rusted steel, or maybe simply with one of her strong, filthy paws, grasping Hetty’s throat…
… Verla watches them sneaking glances at Yolanda, assessing her now as Boncer might, as Hetty does. The strong jaw, the high noble forehead. her wide, full mouth, the heavy-lidded Cleopatra eyes. The long, creamy body, somehow in her tatters of rabbit skins even more majestic. …
… Hetty hasn’t finished though, ‘You could get privileges,’ she says. ‘He’d do whatever you wanted.’
Yolanda speaks then, her voice husky from lack of use. ‘Over my dead body.’ Cleavering through bone.
Hetty taunts, ‘He’d probably like that even more,’ and a snigger ripples around.
Izzy leans in the doorframe and says plainly to Yolanda, ‘But it’s not like you haven’t done worse, though, is it? Nobody heard you complaining when you did it back then.’
Verla sees a cloud of terrible pain cross Yolanda’s face, then vanish. Nobody moves or speaks. Izzy looks frightened, only now realising what she has said. Yolanda behaves as if she hasn’t heard, working away at the rabbit carcass, ripping skin from flesh, breathing steadily in and out.’
Yolanda and Verla do form a tentative alliance based on the recognition of the other’s capacity to see what’s happening as they each come to grips with what they face. The alliance is fragile, tested by the very different response of each. One goes inward, finding a ‘natural’ and elemental self that would never be possible in the civilised world they have been taken out of. She becomes more and more wild, and simultaneously, more and more herself. She is the female body. The other meets hate with hate, plotting and planning a way out. She is the female intellect. We root for both and they need each other. Both grow freer and stronger as they ‘get it’ about their own situation and the general situation – they become liberated women with a real relationship to each other, develop a real and respectful acceptance for who each other is.
The first half of the novel draws the world the girls find themselves in, the reign of absolute masculine power. Just as that starts to feel unbearable, there is a shift in the story. Yolanda and Verla start to engage their own powers. There is an actual power failure, but the electric fence stays live. They’re all still trapped behind the fence, waiting for Hardings, but now power starts to shift and things start to change. Yolanda and Verla change. The rest, less so, they are less fully drawn.
The ending is brilliant, almost mythical; I won’t say too much about it here since it might change how you read the story. I did love the ending though; it is both big enough to satisfy and small enough to be likely. And sadly, most of the women willingly, blindly unable to see the truth that stares them in the face about the situation they’re in, fail to take the chance they have. Two do. No prize for guessing which two. And the very end, there is the realisation about what it is that matters – oh, so perfect.
Wood does not give us a predictable plot nor even what we might expect; she never makes it clear whether Yolanda is free or mad, or if Verla is a murderer. We don’t get told what Harding’s role is about, nor what the point of the imprisonment might be. We have to think about it and form our own opinion. It’s fitting with the theme, and refreshing to not be told what to think. She doesn’t take us into the interior worlds of most of the girls. She is taking the long view, shouting to the world – see this, see what is, see what it does, get off the damned bus!
In short, it’s a brilliant piece of work, and despite the heavy theme it is not grim or depressing or preachy. I think you should read it.