Where to begin? Do I start by confessing that I wept openly for a full five minutes after finishing this novel? Do I add that I am still weepy thinking about it as I write this review? Do I step back from the subject matter (misogyny, gender politics, the nature of violence, self, nature, landscape) and look at it analytically? Or do I leap in with emotions raging and expunge everything this book made me think and feel?
This book is a landmark in Australian literature for me. It is a book that I think every Australian woman should read and clasp to her breast as her own. It is raw, powerful, brutal stuff. But it is also lyrical, dreamy and lush with descriptive language and imagery.
Yolanda and Verla are the last two women to arrive at a facility in the middle of a desert, somewhere in Australia. Women who have been judged unworthy of living in society – because of perceived sexual transgressions – have been extracted and dumped in a dry and baked landscape, surrounded by an electric fence and kept there by two brutal and inept male gaolers, Teddy and Boncer, and their “nurse” – a woman named Nancy. Stripped of their clothes, and other possessions, forced to wear old fashioned tunics and bonnets and shoes, these women work by day clearing boulders and rocks from a road and spend their nights in dogboxes, in filth and degradation. Some cling to each other, some stand up to their captors and are brutalised, and others fall silent and slowly plot their escape or suicide. When the power is switched off and the food begins to run out, the women realise their captors are now jailed along with them. While some battle on as best they can others, like Verla and Yolanda, realise the only way out is to rescue themselves.
Verla, bonded in an unspoken way to Yolanda because they arrived together, starts to hoard toadstools and mushrooms, hoping beyond hope that one of them is a death cap. Plotting in her mind to feed it to Boncer and Teddy and escape this prison. In denial about her fate for about half the book, Verla is a character who slowly toughens up mentally, if not physically. Once she realises she is not going be released she becomes resolute about solving her situation, possibly with Yolanda’s help. Either way, she knows she is either going to kill the men or save the death cap, for herself.
Yolanda is a wonderful character. Feisty, arrogant, she was the only inmate who did not go to the prison willingly. And it is Yolanda who also proves to be the most adaptable of the women. When the Boncer announces that Hardings, the company who run the facility, are “not coming” it is Yolanda who offers to use the rusting rabbit traps on the property to secure a food source for the inmates. A sense of purpose emerges in Yolanda and it becomes her life. Once she successfully traps the rabbits, she feels powerful, and works well in her surroundings to make sure nothing gets in the way of her new-found purpose. When Boncer tries to assault her, she realises he is afraid of her and stands her ground. After all the road-clearing and other physical labour, Yolanda is a ball of muscle and Boncer knows he is no match for a woman with nothing to lose. He backs down and Yolanda’s ascension is complete. Teddy tries to tell Yolanda that rabbit traps are cruel – Yolanda and Verla just “snigger up at him, showing their small grey teeth.” (p.150)
The other interesting character is Nancy – at first the prisoners view her as someone who is privileged, who enjoys the perks of good food and the good graces of Boncer and Teddy, but it soon becomes apparent, especially when Hardings turn off the power supply, that Nancy is as much a prisoner as the rest of them. As Nancy descends into a drug-addled existence, the women realise how weak she is, how reliant on the two men she is, and they see their former selves. When Nancy dies of a drug overdose late in the novel (not a spoiler, there was no doubt for me this was her fate), the women are the ones who take care of her body, washing her and laying her on a stained sheet. They hold a vigil as her body burns, “they see she is only one of them, just skinny bone and sunken flesh, and for the first time they wonder if she has a mother too, somewhere in that little town she came from once.” (p. 271)
“Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a women was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls, somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.” (p. 176)
I cannot stress enough that this is not a pleasant book to read, but it is urgent, and compelling, and speaks volumes about the struggle to be female in a world of men in a way I have not read before in Australian contemporary literature. The only novel I can find some common ground with is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood, and that was hard going too. Don’t be put off by the subject matter. Women will feel empowered by this book, men might feel disgusted and afraid for the women they know. These are not bad things. Novels such as this are written to make us question the “natural way of things” and this book does just that.
Recommended for mature readers over the age of 16.