Charlotte Wood’s fifth novel, The Natural Way of Things, won the Stella Prize and Indie Book of the Year and Indie Novel of the Year in 2016. I was struck when I heard about it by the seed of a story it was based on: the Hay Institution for Girls, established in 1961, not closed until 1974. Wikipedia gives this horrifying description of it:
Hay Institution for Girls was a prison that had been closed down for years but was re-opened in 1961 as a place of punishment for girls who would not comply with the strict regime of the Parramatta girls home.
It was a place of inhumane and extreme discipline for girls between the ages of 14 and 18 and was established by the NSW Department of Child and Social Welfare as an annex to the Parramatta Girls Home. Disciplinary practices and routines were modelled on a similar institution for boys operating since 1945 in Tamworth, NSW.
The daily routine dehumanised the girls through the use of hard labour (e.g. breaking concrete, digging paths and gardens, scrubbing concrete floors and walls, sewing leather, and ‘practices’ which were carried out with regularity at predetermined intervals during the day.
This routine did not alter from one day to the next – up at 6am and return to their cells at 7pm. Hourly checks were made on the girls at night, causing sleep deprivation, and they were required to lie in their beds facing the door. No education or schooling was provided and girls who resisted, or who showed any form of attitude, were locked in isolation, placed on a restricted diet and had their sentences extended.
Typically girls sent to the Hay Institution had come from poor socio-economic backgrounds, many were indigenous children, many had been state wards from a very young age.
The first reunion of the Girls Institution took place on the 3 and 4 of March 2007.
I was born in Hay, and lived on a farm 24 miles east of Hay on the Murrumbidgee River until 1954. I knew of the Hay gaol but did not know about this girls’ institution in the years it was open. In fact, it remained a state secret until a former resident returned there in 2004 in the company of an ABC journalist: http://www.parragirls.org.au/hay-girls-institution.php
Spoiler Alert! Wood has taken this bitter seed and grown a strange, cruel world from it; one in which I would not expect to survive without losing my sanity or my life. Yet most of the girls do survive, though to what end is questionable. The enigmatic ending leaves us unclear as to what fate awaits the girls, become dirty, smelly, skinny, hairy, wild creatures, who gladly clamber onto the bus that comes at last, they believe, to rescue them. But there are hints that it will not be the utopia of return to the ‘civilised’ life they have dreamed, surrounded by cosmetics, chocolates, hairbrushes, face cream, lip gloss, shavers, and all the pleasures of consumerism. As for the two central characters, Yolanda and Verla, who are made of stronger stuff, their fate is unknown too. But we are given enough clues throughout the story to imagine it.
Two questions stayed with me when I closed the book: what is the moral of this inverted fable? And what is the meaning of the title, its hidden message?
I call it an inverted fable because a fable is a story in which animals, plants, objects, legendary characters are anthropomorphised and a moral is drawn. In this story, humans become animal, become wild; a couple of them become part of the natural world that surrounds them, while others (the lesser characters) are reduced to a state somewhere between animal and human. Their humanness is in their memories, in the tasks of survival that they share, and in the basic fellowship of shared life in this prison. There is even compassion, an unexpected flower out of so much pain, despair, fear and loathing. But essentially, they are not changed, these ‘ordinary girls’; just reduced to a common denominator. As for Yolanda and Verla, they become animal in different ways, not as a degradation but as a return to nature in all its wildness, beauty and freedom. Freedom and the key to group survival and personal freedom come to Yolanda in hunting rabbits for food and for their skins, until she is ‘fully animal, released.’ For Verla it comes in foraging for mushrooms, the edible, the hallucinogenic, and the toxic — her secret weapon and key to the ultimate release if she needs it. There is also the promise or possibility of escape into becoming ‘that other self of her own’, which she identifies with a wild creature she has dreamed of.
The difference between these two girls who form a bond of love and mutual recognition and the others is that they see through the artificiality, the falseness, the illusions of the world they have lost, of the betrayals and the deep misogyny they were subjected to.
So I think the answer to my first question is also the answer to my second: that the moral of the fable IS the natural way of things: a life close to nature, simple, brutal, honest. Not the false world they have come from, where it is
as if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves. They lured abduction and abandonment to themselves, they marshalled themselves into this prison where they had made their beds, and now, once more, were lying in them.
The key words here are ‘as if‘. This is what the patriarchal society, the people in their old word, condition women to think. In fact, it is not the natural way of things; it is the unnatural way of things.
That ‘we do it to ourselves’, we get what we ask for, we deserve it, is the central message of misogyny. When, years later, I asked a lover with whom I briefly reunited why he had assaulted me on several occasions, his reply was, ‘you asked for it’. Even though he was no longer prone to violent rages, I knew then we had no future together. And finally, I became free of the desire to be loved, to be needed by a man.
I’m not suggesting that Wood’s message is that we women need to return to nature and give up our sexuality. But in the misogynist, artificial world where these girls have been scapegoated, imprisoned and tortured, escape lies in nature, in solitude, in refusal. Refusal to be used, to be ‘an empty space to be occupied.’
A bleak message, but one that is graced by the wild beauty of nature. Even in death, the death of a rabbit, ‘the cold private slit of white bone beneath’ its ‘thin furry skin between the ears’.
Yolanda, the rabbit killer, grows in primitive strength.
It was a vigour to do with air, and the earth. Animal blood and guts, the moon and the season. It was beyond her named self, beyond girl, or female. Beyond human. It was to do with muscle sliding around bone, to do with animal speed and scent and bloody heartbeat and breath.
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, my favourite philosophers, would have loved this story. They wrote at length of becoming, becoming-intense, becoming-animal, becoming-imperceptible. In such becomings, the self is only a threshold, a door.
This extraordinary fable gripped me in ways I didn’t expect. I felt detached, even alienated, for the first 100 pages, and almost abandoned it. But as I continued, I became fully engaged, compelled to read on, scepticism and distaste suspended, and fell in love with its strange beauty.
The last time I remember feeling like this about a work of fiction was when I read Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy.