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?

Charlotte Wood: The Submerged Cathedral (2004)

Australian author Charlotte Wood’s lyrical novel The Submerged Cathedral caught me unawares. Reading it felt at times like daydreaming. It has a hypnotic and very gentle quality that isn’t easy to put into words. It is highly symbolical and complex but still down to earth. The voice and choice of themes are so unusual, I’m really glad I discovered it on Kim’s blog last year (here).

The novel has four parts, each dedicated to a year – 1963, 1964, 1975, 1984 – covering twenty years in the lives of Jocelyn and Martin.

In part I Jocelyn and Martin meet and fall deeply in love. It’s the 60s and concubinage is far from being accepted. Jocelyn who already turned down one man, doesn’t want to get married but she wants to live with Martin. When they meet she is working as a copy editor and proofreading the manuscript of The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of Australia. The parts which speak the most to Jocelyn are those dedicated to the flora of Australia. The beauty and mystery of all these plants that are unique to this part of the world are a major theme. While reading about them Jocelyn becomes aware of them and decides she would love to create a garden, a garden unlike the English garden her mother used to have. Hers should be a garden with Australian plants only.

Martin is a doctor, a doctor who is much more of a healer than a surgeon. He can almost feel what is wrong with people before they tell him and knows what they need to recover. He is very taken with Jocelyn and her idea and wants to help her build the garden.

The time they spend together in his house is idyllic. They sit on the porch, talk about their plans, go swimming. It’s peaceful and harmonious until the day Ellen, Jocelyn’s older sister, announces she will come back to Australia. She has been living in London with her husband and her daughter. Her husband’s violence is driving her away.

Why the strong and courageous Jocelyn who doesn’t even fear to be a social outcast, lets her sister take over her life and dictate her every move, is hard to understand for anyone who has never been entangled in a dysfunctional family system. I know what this is like and although I read with shock how the beauty is crushed and the relationship between Martin and Jocelyn is put to a test it doesn’t pass, I could relate. It made me gasp and infuriated me but I felt that Jocelyn couldn’t act any other way under those circumstances. At the end of part I a tragedy happens after which Jocelyn leaves Martin.

The next three parts of the novel follow them in their journey from grief to healing and beyond. Jocelyn chooses to follow Ellen to London. Martin joins a convent. All through the novel the themes of love, religion, nature and gardens are undergoing different variations.

What I liked so much about this book is the way it is written. It has the capacity to draw you in. It speaks to your emotions much more than your intellect. I felt like a spectator who was captivated and then became part of the story because Charlotte Wood really shows everything, she doesn’t tell a lot. We don’t only think that Ellen’s sister is destructive, abusive and a liar, we experience it. This is amazingly artful. It’s also never said why Martin joins a convent but we learn to understand. The same goes for the description of the Australian flora and Jocelyn’s urge to create a garden that guides and haunts her until she finally gets the opportunity to follow her dream.

I would love to visit Australia because it is so unique, because it has landscapes and plants and animals that you find nowhere else in the world. If you share this fascination, you will love this book. It is a hymn to the beauty of that continent but it is also a hymn to love. Pure unconditional love. Last but not least it has  a religious theme that is as important as the nature element. The gardens of the Bible are mentioned and alluded to, Eden and Gethsemane. Antonement and pilgrimage are other key themes. While Martin tries to make sense as a recluse, Jocelyn is living like a pilgrim.

The Submerged Cathedral is a very subtle novel, very alluring and despite its gentleness very powerful. It seems to have been created in a timeless zone.

Part III in which Jocelyn travels through Europe with a garden architect has the appeal of a travel novel. They stay in France and Spain and while visiting Parque Güell in Barcelona, Jocelyn has a vision. The title The Submerged Cathedral refers to Debussy’s La cathedral engloutie. Seeing Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia reminds her of this piece of music. When she sees Gaudí’s church, everything is tied together; her idea of an Australian garden, the organic forms of Gaudí’s work, the dryness of the Spanish earth. Her journey is fulfilled and she returns to Australia.

I liked this book a lot. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking. Several tragedies happen between these pages that each made me put the book aside for a while. But there were equally passages of great beauty that also made me put the book aside. I wanted those pages to linger just a little while longer.

I would like to read more of Charlotte Wood’s books but they are not available outside of Australia at the moment. Animal People sounded like a novel I would love. Here is the link to her website if you’d like to explore.

The Submerged Cathedral is my second contribution to the Aussie Author Challenge 2012.

Here is a wonderful and very subtle analysis of the novel which I found on Nike Sulway’s blog Lost for Words: The Submerged Cathedral.

Aussie Author Challenge 2012 – Bolaño Group Read – Henry Green Week

I discovered the  Aussie Author Challenge 2012 hosted by  Booklover Book Reviews on Tony’s Reading List. I’m not sure how many Australian authors I’ve read in my life so far, but I’m pretty sure not all that many. While browsing my piles I discovered five novels. One of them also qualifies for the War Through the Generations Challenge. Lisa from ANZ Litlovers has kindly given input and my choices seem worthy. Should you want to join the challenge, her blog offers lists where you will find a lot of reading suggestions. I have signed up for the  “beginner” level or, as the challenge terms it, “tourist”.

These are the books I’d like to read

David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter

Tim Winton’s Dirt Music


Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus

Charlotte Wood’s Submerged Cathedral (OOP?)

Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip

January is a busy month but some of the events were too good. I had to join.

I signed up for the Bolaño The Savage Detectives group read hosted by Richard and Rise last year and now is the time to start reading as the novel is on the chunky side. If you’d like to read along you better get a copy soon or you will not make it through the 770 pages in time. I have a feeling I won’t but if I mange to read 2/3 I’m already pleased with myself.

The week of January 23 sees another event coming that  I absolutely had to join. Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog is hosting a Henry Green week. Henry Green was once thought to be one of the greatest stylists of British literature but is now almost forgotten. I have never read Henry Green and think Stu’s idea is really wonderful. Penguin has issued a tome containing three of his famous novels Loving, Living and Party Going. I’m going to read Loving.

Do you have any Aussie author suggestions?

Will you join the Bolaño group  read or Henry Green Week?