Some Australian female authors are writing blistering literary fiction. Two recent standouts are The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (A&U) and Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett (Picador).
I was fortunate to hear Charlotte Wood in conversation with Ailsa Piper just after I finished reading The Natural Way of Things. This is a searing story about a small group of women who have been incarcerated in the Australian desert. All these women have suffered sexual assault.
Charlotte Wood explained that she had to air the outrage from situations where women have experienced this abuse and spoken out. In many cases they have been left to languish while the male perpetrators have not been penalised or only received the equivalent of a rap over the knuckles. This reminds me of a well-known footballer who admitted to witnessing the group molestation of a young woman and did nothing about it and was later reinstated as a darling of the rugby league fraternity and media. It is beyond belief. Wood has spoken widely about cases she particularly draws on, such as the girls from Parramatta Girls Home who were sent to the Hay Institute in country NSW.
The Natural Way of Things is an extraordinary novel. I have never read anything like it and will remember it always. If you are avoiding it because of the dark content, you may be surprised that it may not be as black as expected. Beauty is threaded throughout the writing. Although harrowing, the book is ultimately empowering of women.
Knowing that Shirley Barrett’s Rush Oh! is about whaling in Twofold Bay, out of Eden in NSW, didn’t endear me to reading this novel but a trusted bookseller was so enthusiastic about the book that I plunged in. The novel is absolutely fascinating. It is told from Mary’s point of view. She is the eldest daughter of head whaler, George Davidson (based on a real man) and seems to be falling for new rower and former preacher, the mysterious John Beck.
Much of the story is based on fact, including the pod of Killer whales, led by Tom, who round up humpbank whales to help the men hunt them. The Killers are regarded with respect and affection and are believed to be the reincarnated spirits of Aboriginal whale men.
There’s lots of tension, superb storytelling and an engaging voice.
Either of these novels would make a thought-provoking Christmas gift for discerning readers.