Some Thoughts on Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things or Should There Be Trigger Warnings on Books?

I finished Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things a couple of days ago and wasn’t sure whether I should review it or not. But then I thought of the many glowing reviews in newspapers and on blogs that made me pick this up and so I decided, while I won’t review it, I will write about my reactions to this book because they are so different from any one else’s. While most people loved it and even put it on their “Best of the Year” list, I truly hated it and wish I hadn’t read it. And, frankly, if I had known what to expect, I wouldn’t have picked it up. But before I write more, I have to emphasize – this isn’t a bad book. It just has elements in it, I wish I’d been made aware of.

I’ve read another Charlotte Wood novel, a few years ago, which made my end of year best of list. It’s a marvelous book and very different from this one. It’s one of the reasons why I continued reading The Natural Way of Things although I disliked it from the beginning. And since I’m bad at putting away books, once I’m halfway through, I finished it. It gave me nightmares and has planted some images in my head, I have a hard time getting rid of.

If you’ve read other reviews, you might be puzzled that it upset me so much and I can tell you, I get it, because nobody mentioned those elements.

The Natural Way of Things is a story about a group of girls who were each involved in a sex scandal. While the men aren’t punished, the girls are sent to a remote place, stripped of their clothes, shaven, barely fed and guarded by two brutal men who hit them and force them to work like slaves. It’s a lot like a concentration camp. Every review I read, mentioned this and how this is a feminist look at the way the media sees women and how women are still mostly the ones blamed when there’s a scandal. I didn’t have a problem with that, I had a problem with what follows. In the middle of the book, the captives and their captors realize they have been abandoned by the outside world. They run out of food and other basic supplies. And that’s when it started to get horrible for me because one of the girls decides to set traps and catch rabbits. Anyone knows that catching animals with traps, especially certain traps, is barbaric. Reading about this made me sick. Reading about the detailed ways the animals were taken apart, skinned, their fur prepared  . . . You get the picture. And there’s a scene towards the end, when a larger animal gets trapped . . . I’m not going to forget that.

I’m not sure why nobody mentioned the traps or those awful scenes linked to that. I wish they had because, as I said, I would have stayed away from this book. It would have worked as a trigger warning.

I suppose, you get why I still had to write about this because I know there are other people who are highly sensitive to anything involving animals.

That said, I don’t think Charlotte Wood should have written this any other way. I guess it works. One of the themes in her book is that of predator and prey and the trapped rabbits are linked to that theme. It’s not a bad book, but I was the wrong reader. If you’re like me and anything harming animals upsets you, you might want to stay away from this book.

The above may give you the impression that there isn’t any explicit violence against women in this book, but there is. I found that hard to stomach as well but I could handle it better.

This brings me to the topic of trigger warnings. I’ve seen debates, where people said that there should be trigger warnings on books. For all sorts of things. Cruelty against animals, kids and women, swearing, explicit sex, violence  . . . The list is as endless as people’s sensibilities. I don’t think that there should be trigger warnings because there’s always the risk that those could, in some countries, lead to the banning of certain books. I’m against book bans and I think that trigger warnings are also problematic because they simplify a complex theme. Let’s take The Natural Way of Things as an example. What should the warning have looked like “Violence against women” – that would have been possible, but the animal topic couldn’t have been covered by a similar concise warning. There’s no gratuitous violence, like in the case of the women. There’s killing, trapping, skinning and slow death. “Warning – animal trapping”. Weird. Some readers who are sensitive to cruelty against animals in books, might not even have found the instances here problematic because they are not gratuitous. You see, it’s tricky.

While I don’t think trigger warnings are the way to go, I still would have wished the one or the other review had made me aware that some of the content could be problematic for me. Nonetheless, it’s my fault I didn’t stop reading. I wish I will finally be able to abandon books that aren’t good for me, even when I’m halfway through.

How do you feel about this? Trigger warning or no trigger warning?

Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014)

The Narrow Road To The Deep North

In December I left an overhasty comment on Bellezza’s blog (here). She’d reviewed Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, saying that it was very hard to read. I was about 100 pages into the novel and commented that I didn’t think it was all that bad. Unfortunately, I still had 350 pages to go and those were anything but easy. They were extremely hard and I kept on wondering “Why am I reading this?”. I’m not sure why I thought like that. I’ve seen many movies on POWs, have read more than one book and never had this reaction. It wasn’t even anything new. I was familiar with what the Japanese did to their prisoners. I knew about the vivisection on American soldiers. I just felt that it’s too much. Too graphic. After I finished the book I chatted with Vishy about it and he told me that Claire had written about the book (here), having a similar reaction. She couldn’t even finish it. I’m still not entirely sure why I reacted like this. I just know that I didn’t get anything out of reading this novel. If it hadn’t been for the brittle writing style and the mostly non-linear structure, which I both found very engaging, I would have given up. And I bought a hardback. It’s one of a few rules I try to stick to; if I buy a hardback, I finish it. I think I have to stop buying hardbacks.

The largest part of The Narrow Road to the Deep North tells the story of the surgeon Dorrigo Evans. Before the war he’s engaged to Ella but just before being shipped overseas he meets his uncle’s young wife Amy and falls in love with her. The love affair is intense and passionate and will haunt him all through the war years and even after the war. There’s a reason why they don’t get together at the end of the war and this plot line was the one I liked best because it illustrates so well how sometimes a whole life can take another turn just because of some small element.

The book is divided into several parts, one of which tells about Dorrigo’s time as a prisoner of war on the Burma Death Railway. In this section, like in the sections in the last part, the point of view changes from one Australian prisoner to the next, and from one Japanese officer or guard to the next. The parts told from the prisoner’s point of view are awful. The descriptions of the horrors, the beatings, the wounds, infections, illnesses  . . . they are so detailed and graphic, it’s too much. And the parts told from the point of view of the Japanese are very disturbing. I’ve never read anything as disturbing as that. We are in the mind of monsters who believe they are superior beings, who go on and on about honor and shame, who constantly rationalize their evil deeds and sadism,  and find not only excuses but reasons that make them believe they are “good men”.

On returning to the camp late that afternoon, Colonel Kota gave Nakamura a dressing down, his rage driven by his own shame at having forgotten a haiku and thus having been unable to behead a prisoner—and this in front of a Korean guard. In turn deeply ashamed, the Japanese major found the Korean sergeant whose name he could never remember, slapped him hard a few times, got the name of the prisoner who was apparently—of all things—hiding out in the hospital, and ordered a parade to be called and the prisoner to be punished in front of the assembled POWs.

After the war Dorrigo gets married to Ella, becomes a famous surgeon and turns into a philanderer.

He (Dorrigo after the war) was a lighthouse whose light could not be relit. In his dreams he would hear his mother calling to him from the kitchen: Boy, come here, boy. But when he would go inside it was dark and cold, the kitchen was charred beams and ash and smelt of gas, and no one was home.

In the last part we’re spending a lot of time in the mind of the Japanese war criminal, officer Nakamura. And once again that’s even more disturbing than anything else.

Flanagan’s writing style and the way he structured the first parts of the book made me finish it. It’s his strength of writing vivid scenes and descriptions that made the book worthwhile, but at the smae time these qualities also made it extremely hard to read. It’s debatable how graphic and explicit a novel should be. I think he did the right thing in being this explicit, only, I didn’t want to read it. Not at this time. However, I have other points to criticize. The book is too long. The last part felt as if he wanted to add too much. We didn’t need to read about the vivisections and there was a scene involving a fire, almost at the end, that I found superfluous as well. As if Flanagan didn’t exactly know when and how to end the book.

The brittle, vivid style makes me want to pick up another of his novels. But I wish I hadn’t read this one.

Literature and War Readalong March 31 2014: March by Geraldine Brooks


Geraldine Brooks is an Australian-born writer whose second book, the Civil War novel March, received the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. The book is inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s famous novel Little Women. March tells the story of the absent father. Right from the beginning of Little Women we know that the father is fighting for the Northern forces in the Civil War.

Jo said sadly, “We haven’t got father, and shall not have him for a long time.” She didn’t say “perhaps never”, but each silently added it, thinking of father far away, where the fighting was.

I’ve always meant to read one of her novels and this seemed a good choice. It will be interesting to compare this to Killer Angels.

Here are the first sentences

October 21, 1861

This is what I write to her: The clouds tonight embossed the sky. A dipping sun gilded and brazed each raveling edge as if the firmament were threaded through with precious filaments. I pause there to mop my aching eye, which will not stop tearing. The line I have set down is, perhaps, on the florid side of fine, but no matter: she is a gentle critic.My hand, which I note is flecked with traces of dried phlegm, has the tremor of exhaustion.

And  some details and the blurb for those who want to join

March by Geraldine Brooks (Australia 2005) American Civil War, Novel, 304 pages

Brooks’s luminous second novel, after 2001′s acclaimed Year of Wonders, imagines the Civil War experiences of Mr. March, the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. An idealistic Concord cleric, March becomes a Union chaplain and later finds himself assigned to be a teacher on a cotton plantation that employs freed slaves, or “contraband.” His narrative begins with cheerful letters home, but March gradually reveals to the reader what he does not to his family: the cruelty and racism of Northern and Southern soldiers, the violence and suffering he is powerless to prevent and his reunion with Grace, a beautiful, educated slave whom he met years earlier as a Connecticut peddler to the plantations. In between, we learn of March’s earlier life: his whirlwind courtship of quick-tempered Marmee, his friendship with Emerson and Thoreau and the surprising cause of his family’s genteel poverty. When a Confederate attack on the contraband farm lands March in a Washington hospital, sick with fever and guilt, the first-person narrative switches to Marmee, who describes a different version of the years past and an agonized reaction to the truth she uncovers about her husband’s life. Brooks, who based the character of March on Alcott’s transcendentalist father, Bronson, relies heavily on primary sources for both the Concord and wartime scenes; her characters speak with a convincing 19th-century formality, yet the narrative is always accessible. Through the shattered dreamer March, the passion and rage of Marmee and a host of achingly human minor characters, Brooks’s affecting, beautifully written novel drives home the intimate horrors and ironies of the Civil War and the difficulty of living honestly with the knowledge of human suffering.


The discussion starts on Monday, 31 March 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Anna Funder: All That I Am (2011) Literature and War Readalong May 2013

All That I AM

It’s not easy to write about this book and what is even worse – this is the very first time I almost forgot to write the review of one of my readalong titles. The book is not bad as such, I didn’t suffer while reading it or want to abandon it or anything like that. It just never reached me, if you know what I mean. It was like listening to the radio while talking to someone at the same time. You hear some individual words which briefly get your attention but overall it’s just background noise. This has certainly nothing to do with the topic as such but was entirely due to its execution. I was wondering before starting the novel why people called this “faction”. Now I know.

All That I Am tells the true story of four friends. Ruth Becker, her cousin Dora Fabian, the playwright Ernst Toller and Ruth’s husband Hans Wesemann. At a time when hardly anyone noticed, they knew that Hitler’s coming to power in 1933 was a very bad thing. Being part of the communist and socialist movement, they were not only in opposition to the National Socialist party but in grave danger from the beginning.

The chapters alternate between the point of view of Ruth Becker and Ernst Toller. They are both told in the present, just before their deaths, at different points in time. Ruth is living in Australia when she is looking back on her life, while Toller stays in the US in 1939 and tells Dora’s story from his point of view. Although they were both important, and, in Toller’s case, even more famous than Dora, their stories focus on Dora who was the center of their respective lives, their best friend and lover.

After a small act of rebellion – Ruth hangs a red flag out of the window, after Hitler comes to power – the four friends have to fear for their lives. People are being arrested and executed if they openly criticise the regime.

The four decide to leave for London and continue their work there. They fight in order to raise awareness of what is happening in Germany and still hope that Hitler will be overthrown.

At first they might have felt like they had escaped but Hitler’s agents were everywhere and even people living abroad were executed. They hear daily about people they know being killed. They must also fear that there is a traitor among them.

I’m not going to reveal more as the book works best, I think, when you don’t know too much in advance. That way it’s at least to some extent surprising. There are a few dramatic events and unexpected developments.

While I didn’t know these particular stories, wasn’t familiar with the four people, I knew enough about German history, so that this particular slice of it, had nothing new to offer. What was new were the stories of the four friends but the way this was told was not very interesting. It’s true, the book picks up speed in the second part but still, it read like Funder had tried to fill facts with life but didn’t really succeed. All we got was a half filled balloon hovering half a meter above the ground. It never managed to fly high up in the sky.

The best parts were the few moments telling Toller’s and Ruth’s final days.

Those who have read Stasiland, Anna Funder’s non-fiction book on Eastern Germany, were all very enthusiastic, which makes me think it would have been better if she had opted for the same approach here. Only, the facts are kind of meagre and maybe she thought turning something you could have told in 50 non-fiction pages would work better if turned into a full-length novel.

As for the topic – Yes, there were people who were aware as soon as 1933 that things were going wrong in Germany. Toller and his friends were not the only ones. There was a large number of writers and artists, communists and socialists who left Germany as early as that. What the book doesn’t explore is the fact that if  the communists and socialists would have been able to overthrow Hitler and his party, Germany might not have been much better off.

Sure, it’s an interesting story, sad and dramatic but told in a lifeless manner and very dry. It certainly didn’t work for me. Luckily it worked for others.

Other reviews

Lindsey (Little REader Library)

Lizzy’s Literary Life

Tony’s Reading List

The review is also a contribution to the Aussie Author Challenge.


All That I Am was the fifth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the WWII novel Winter in Wartime by Dutch writer Jan Terlouw. Discussion starts on Friday 28 June, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

M.L.Stedman: The Light Between Oceans (2012)

The Light Between Oceans

A boat washes up on the shore of a remote lighthouse keeper’s island. It holds a dead man – and a crying baby. The only two islanders, Tom and his wife Izzy, are about to make a devastating decision.

They break the rules and follow their hearts. What happens next will break yours.

Last week I went to a book shop and saw a neatly arranged table with the titles of the long list of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I read most blurbs and browsed a few books and finally ended up buying The Light Between Oceans.

Tom and Izzy live on an island off the Australian coast, near Point Partageuse. Tom is haunted by memories of WWI. The things he saw, the men he killed. He was reluctant at first to let Izzy come closer, didn’t want to take this young lively woman with him on a forlorn island. While he loved being a lighthouse keeper, didn’t mind the loneliness and how barren the island was, he was not so sure it would be the right place for a woman. But Izzy loved him and wanted to follow him.

Their first months on the island are bliss but when Izzy loses her first baby things start to darken. When a boat with a dead man and a little baby are washed ashore, Izzy has just miscarried for the third time. Seeing the tiny infant makes her loose perspective and she convinces Tom that it is the right thing to keep the child. Of course it isn’t the right thing and the tragedy is programmed. The book has a handful of main protagonists and it’s amazing to watch one after the other make bad decisions.

I have to tell you right away, I didn’t like this book. To some extent I even hated it. It’s sentimental, melodramatic, mawkish… I’m maybe the only one as most people loved it. I was wondering why on earth this was on the Women’s Prize for Fiction long list. The writing is quite artless. I expected something more sophisticated. There is nothing stylish or special about it. It’s the type of book Jodi Picoult could have written, only I’d say she would have done a better job. The exploration of a moral dilemma, what is right, what is wrong, make this a book many book clubs will love to discuss.

I have this habit that I must finish books and it annoys me often. On the other hand, even this book improved on the last 150 pages. The first choice they make is to keep the baby but later Tom and Izzy and a few other people make other choices and some of those are much more interesting.

What made me hate the book was Izzy and the way everyone spoke about and to the baby: “Sweet thing”, “Sweetheart”, “Little one”, “Darling”…. Every character in this book is constantly cooing over the child. That got on my nerves big time.

What I liked was how she evoked this lonely lighthouse. We get a really good feel for what it must be like to be a lighthouse keeper, to be confined to an island for 3 – 6 months without any contact with the outside world.

While I hated Izzy, I really liked her husband Tom. The portrayal of a man who has survived the trenches of WWI but never manages to shake this experience was well done.

The only thing that was very positive is the fact that M.L.Stedman made me understand Izzy in the end despite the fact that I hated her big time.

It was very interesting to see my reaction. Usually – and contrary to many readers – I don’t love or hate characters in books. The things I love are descriptions, style, atmosphere, mood. The experience to hate a character was unsettling. I wonder what it says about me that I reacted so strongly. The idea that someone thinks it’s OK to steal  someone else’s child and keeps on saying it’s for the child’s good, made me so angry. I thought it was a very violent act. 

If you like books which explore moral dilemmas and choices, you might like this. It’s certainly a book that can generate interesting discussions.

Halfway through the novel I noticed that it consists almost exclusively of scenes. No wonder the film rights have already been sold.

Has anyone else read this book? Did you like it?

Literature and War Readalong May 31 2013: All That I Am by Anna Funder

All That I AM

When I first heard of Anna Funder’s novel All That I Am  I wanted to start reading it right away as it sounded so appealing. The novel is inspired by – or based on – the tragic life of German-Jewish left-wing playwright Ernst Toller. Some have termed the book “faction” but judging from what I read about it, Funder took a lot of liberties, which makes the term “fiction” more appropriate in the  end. All That I Am is Funder’s first novel but she had a huge publishing success with her book Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall.

The book starts in 1933 with Hitler’s rise to power and tells the story of four young German exiles who try to raise awareness in the UK for the threat the new German government poses. Toller is one of them. In 1933 he lost his citizenship, left Berlin and went to live in London.

Here are the first sentences

When Hitler came to power I was in the bath. Our apartment was on the Schiffbauerdamm near the river, right in the middle of Berlin. From its windows we could see the dome of the parliament building. The wireless in the living room was turned up loud so Hans could hear it in the kitchen, but all that drifted down to me were waves of happy cheering, like a football match. It was Monday afternoon.


The discussion starts on Friday, 31 May 2013.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2013, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Helen Garner: The Spare Room (2008)


Helen Garner’s The Spare Room was one of the books I found at work. I started it immediately and finished it almost in one sitting. Garner has chosen a difficult topic and written about it beautifully. Despite the sad topic, it’s an uplifting book.

Helen’s friend Nicola is very ill. She has stage four metastatic cancer. This means it’s terminal. Chances that she will recover are less than minimal. Looking for a miracle cure she asks her friend if she can stay with her in Melbourne for three weeks. Helen doesn’t know any details. She doesn’t know that Nicola is in denial. She just wants to help her friend and accepts.

Nicola always used to believe in alternative medicine. But what works for all sorts of ailments, does not work for terminal cancer. Many late stage cancer patients cannot accept the fact that they are dying which makes them an easy prey for frauds and con men. The clinic Nicola will visit during her stay is not much different. The cure has no value but terrible side effects. And it costs a fortune. What Nicola would really need is palliative care but she thinks getting palliative care will speed up her death.

Caring for her friend is beyond Helen’s strengths. Like Nicola, she is over 60 and washing sweaty bed sheets every night, seeing her friend in horrible pain and denial sucks all her energy from her.

“It’s just that in my work,” said Carmel, “I’ve learnt that there are people who never, ever face the fact that death’s coming to them. They go on fighting right up to their last breath.” She paused. “And it is one way of doing it.”

This must sound like a bleak story but it’s not. It’s honest and even funny, stripped of everything but the bare reality. The worst part is that the two women have to live a fake relationship as Nicola doesn’t want to accept she will not be cured. She smiles constantly, pretending everything is alright. She doesn’t want to feel her emotions and in doing so triggers them in others. All those who care for her feel desperate, sad and angry while she keeps on grinning.

When Helen is at the end of her strength, she confronts her demonstrating that sometimes you really have to be cruel to be kind. When they finally speak openly about the fake cure and the probability that Nicola will die, things get better and they are able to live moments of true friendship again.

Oh, I loved her for the way she made me laugh. She was the least self-important person I knew, the kindest, the least bitchy. I couldn’t imagine the world without her.

I devoured this book. Its spare prose is beautiful. Its honesty was soothing.

I’ve seen this happen quite a few times around me. People get very ill, terminally ill but until the last moment they deny it. No real conversations are possible and what little time is left is spent chasing a miracle cure.

But Garner goes one step further. She also writes about the caregiver and how incredibly strong you must be to perform the tasks which are needed. How much you may come to hate the person who depends on you because it’s so tiring and stressful.

The Spare Room is astonishing because it’s so well written and manages to be ultimately uplifting through its gentle humour, honesty and in  showing what true friendship can achieve.

This review is my first contribution to the Aussie Author Challenge 2013


We all know that search engines work in mysterious ways that’s why I add this caveat: 

For anyone reading this who is afflicted by cancer or has friends or family who are ill, please be aware, that the case in this book is not just a simple case. It’s a stage four metastatic cancer. I’m saying this because I don’t want to rob anyone of their hope. Many cancer patients, especially when their illness has been discovered early on, can be cured, notably when the tumour is operable. There are but a few types like the very aggressive malignant glioblastoma multiforme which leave you with hardly any chance.