I have just finished reading this harrowing and powerful novel.
Set in the near future it is about a group of young women who are abducted and imprisoned in an outback facility somewhere in Australia. They are abducted by a corporation – to be punished, to be silenced because they have dared to expose their sexual exploitation at the hands of powerful men.
They include a victim of a football-buddy pack rape; another is a “lover” of a high-profile politician; a woman assaulted whilst partying on a cruise ship, and a woman, a contestant on a TV reality show who is singled out for sex by the producer of the show.
All very familiar stories which we far too regularly hear about on our news media.
The literal abduction and violation of these women is reflective of how our society treats women who dare to speak out about sexual assault, coercion and sexual intimidation.
And how we vilify – by calling them sluts; promiscuous; liars and publicity seekers. How they are ostracized and silenced for calling out the abuse of powerful men.
The women in the novel are drugged and taken to this isolated place. They are kept locked in old shearers’ quarters. Their heads are shaved; they wear shapeless clothing, are shackled together and made to do hard labour. Their three prisoners, two men and a woman beat them and humiliate them constantly. And there is always the underlying threat of sexual violence, which comes to fruition during the novel.
It is a story of survival – how each woman in their individual way learn to survive (or not).
Charlotte Wood evokes a bleak, nightmarish landscape in this novel. I was reminded of ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding. Because these women have to learn to live off the land – to kill, skin and gut rabbits as their food source runs out and the electricity is turned off – but not to the giant electric fence which encloses them. And there are disputes and fights between the women.
But I was moved by the sense of interconnection and commonality between the women, despite their differences and disputes.
Verla and Yolanda are the two women we follow most closely. Yolanda, in particular, finds her escape by becoming part of the landscape, the environment and as time progresses she becomes almost wild– an unsentimental relationship with the land.
Their relationships are not romanticised by Charlotte Wood – this is not a story where female bonding and communion occurs. It is not a sentimental novel. Each woman finds her own way to survive. Each however brings their skills to the group and they are able to work cooperatively to survive.
What struck me most however was the sense of commonality of oppression that these women understood about each other. Despite their differences and in some instances the need to compete for necessary food and resources, they take care of each other.
I had the privilege of seeing Charlotte Wood speaking at the recent Adelaide Writer’s week and one of her observations related to the lack of solidarity of the women and how this is reflective of patriarchal socialisation of women.
Interestingly in a Sydney Morning Herald interview Wood describes how the idea came from learning about the Hay Institute:
“Wood heard a radio documentary about women who had been locked up as teenagers in the Hay Institution for Girls, an offshoot of Parramatta Girls Home that was reserved for the 10 worst offenders in the state in the 1960s and ’70s. They were drugged and put on a train to the decommissioned men’s prison in south-western NSW, where they were forced to march, look at the floor, never talk to each other, and endure rape and other violence.”
“One reason many of them were there was they had been sexually abused or assaulted in some way and they told someone about it, so then it was ‘they are promiscuous’.”
Despite the hopefully unlikely scenario of this novel, I was struck by how it is replicative of our patriarchal society. We punish and vilify women who dare to speak out against male violence.
“Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood is itself were the cause of these things. As if the girls themselves somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.”
And at the end of this interview Charlotte Wood is quoted:
“A couple of men who have read it wanted to know where it came from and I said, ‘I think it just came from 50 years of being a woman’.