The Natural Way of Things

Michelle De Kretser's 'The Life to Come' - a reflection by David Burton

International Women’s Day heralded any number of celebrations, revelations and discussions this year, but none perhaps more anticipated by literature-lovers than the Stella Prize Shortlist. The slightly intimidating 12 volume long list was culled to a more easily digestible six. The winner will be announced in mid-April. 20180310 - the-natural-way-of-things coverAwarded to extraordinary Australian female writers, the Stella Prize has become a foundational hallmark of literary success. 2016’s The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood remains on my favourite Aussie books of all time.

2017’s The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose is achingly beautiful. It was reviewed by our good friend Anna Blackie for this blog when it was named the winner last year. 20180310 - the-museum-of-modern-love cover

Every year I promise myself to make it through the entire shortlist. Some years I get very close. In 2018, I’ve started early, and have spent some time lounging, dreaming and laughing with The Life to Come by Michelle De Kretser.

It’s difficult to describe the plot in a nutshell here, because any kind of narrative is, at best, only visible when you squint from a distance. The publisher has suggested the work is a ‘meditation’, a suitable-enough label. The novel centres on a network of relationships at the centre of which is Pippa, a struggling young writer trying to break into the Australian literary scene. Her mentor is the more successful George, then there’s Celeste, who’s engaged in an affair with a married woman in Paris, and Cassie, a young woman trying to please her Sri Lankan boyfriend with extravagant meals from his homeland.

It’s a book about intimacy, about writing, about loneliness - but really it’s about these characters. De Krester descriptions are so perceptible that the writing almost gleams with a sharp edge. This honed blade gives the book it’s most stunning and readable quality: it’s sense of humour.

For me, a lover of genre fiction with more pop culture flavours, a novel like The Life to Come could wander too far into literary-snob territory. But De Kretser’s occasional embrace of satire is irresistible. Some sections come across as a kind of refined stand-up routine. Here’s an example – a description of a couple in Paris that we never meet again, but who just happen to be passing by our characters:

“One of those couples that populate Paris, a man with silvery, swept-back hair, a worshipful, thin-wrested young woman. A cardigan in a docile colour was draped around her shoulders. Her hips, streamlined in cunningly cut linen, nevertheless promised the production of sturdy heirs in a selfless perpetuation of family and nation. Anyone could see that she would prepare a light, delicious savoury flan that evening. While trimming half a kilo of slender green beans - she had risen at dawn to haggle over them in a market - she would comment intelligently on the latest developments in the Middle East. After supper, it would be time to draft the next chapter of her doctoral thesis, write the footnotes for the man’s forthcoming book, put on a load of his washing and practice the pelvic floor exercises that maintain his sexual pleasure at an optimum.”

Other biting moments come when de Kretser describes (with hilarious accuracy and, at times, cringing familiarity), the state of the Aussie publishing industry or, more broadly, Australia’s relationship with culture and sense of self.

20180310 - questions-of-travel coverMichelle De Kretser is a rare talent. Writers with her technical skill and deft hand are only a few in a generation. Her previous novels are well celebrated, Questions of Travel winning the 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Award. The Life to Come’s add addition to the 2018 Stella Prize shortlist is just another of de Kretser’s achievements.

This book is probably best read over several days while lounging around, perhaps on holiday. This way you’ll be most able to disappear into the prose and let the intimate portrayals of the characters and their observations move you, humour you and, ultimately delight you.20180310 - the-life-to-come cover

The Natural Way of Things

After it won the Stella Prize this year, I pushed The Natural Way of Things to the top of my reading list. At this point, most avid readers will have heard of The Natural Way of Things and the huge acclaim it’s receiving for the unique way it discusses the darker elements of society through exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control.

Ten women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in an abandoned property in the middle of the Australian Desert. The girls have no knowledge of where they are or how they came to be there. They are forced to shave their heads and dress in strange uniforms, building a road for the unknown ‘Hastings’. The girls are guarded by Teddy and Boncer, two inept and brutal jailers, as well as the strange ‘nurse’ Nancy. Not long after their arrival, the girls begin to realise what they have in common, in each girls past is a sexual scandal with a powerful man. The girls work and wait for rescue or explanation, but when the power is switched off and all talk of ‘Hastings’ arrival ceases it is clear their jailers are as imprisoned as they are, and a new type of life in this strange dystopian landscape begins.

Yolanda and Verla stand out from the crowd of girls. Their friendship a strange and silent trail treading its way through the novel. I found I connected most with Yolanda and the animal nature she lets overtake her. Yolanda’s strength and intelligence is what keeps the girls going through the degradation of the confusing community they find themselves in. Yolanda is the only girl of the group who fought against being brought to this strange place, sensing something horrible to come. Verla, on the other hand, sees herself as separate from the others, as better. She judges the girls as harshly as anyone, not seeing or caring about the likeness of their situations or the sisterhood they are now bound in. Verla becomes obsessed with her white horse, a beast she believes she will ride to freedom, making very few actions to actually go in search of the creature she believes to be her saviour.

I felt as if I spent the entirety of the book waiting for something, for a break or a movement in the story. It’s not as if nothing happened in the book, it was just that I was expecting… more. I feel the issue with award-winning novels can often be the hype that is built up around them. From the reviews I’d read and people I’d spoken to, I had built up an expectation for this book. I believed it would be phenomenal, that the novel would really knock me off my feet. And maybe my expectations were what stopped me from having a stronger reaction?

There’s a deep undercurrent of rage that runs through this book. You feel it dripping from Yolanda as she watched Boncer and Nancy ‘play doctor’ with Verla through her illness. You see it in the way the girls look at Hetty after she offers herself to Boncer in exchange for small comforts. Every line of every page is filled with a dull, un-moving rage, an anger that can’t be dissipated even by the books conclusion. To me, this rage represented the unyielding nature of our society, the endless struggle for things which seem so simple. These girls did not deserve their fate, even Hetty, Nancy and Teddy did not deserve what came to them. It’s an anger at the unprejudiced cruelty of existence. Or, at least that’s how it made me feel.

My biggest praise of The Natural Way of Things was the beautiful way in which it was written. It was very easy and enjoyable to let myself sink into the words. I had a very visceral reaction to Wood’s novel. When Yolanda begins to lose herself to the land, developing her new animalistic persona, I could feel the skins of the rabbits she huddled around herself, smell the crisp air in the morning as she hunted the food which kept their small and strange community alive. But for me, this beautiful style and quintessentially Australian setting was simply not enough. I needed more from the book, I craved it. I closed the last page with the thought ‘is that it?’ I would recommend this book, as I certainly don’t regret reading it, I just wished there was more, of what, I can’t say, but there was an overwhelming feeling that something was missing from the pages of The Natural Way of Things.