The natural way of things

The Natural Way of Things is a contemporary novel by Australian author Charlotte Wood.

It came heavily recommended. My friend, who’s incidentally an English teacher—no not the teacher of the language but a woman of the language itself—wrote a lengthy Facebook post (we’re millennials, we’re embracing technology) about how much she enjoyed this book.

Enjoyed in the sense that she was gripped by the crude reality that this story portrays. As a woman, a feminist, and as someone with a lot of female (and male) friends, she couldn’t believe how easily women can turn against each other. Or rather, she knew it was all possible, but was still shocked to physically hold a book that reflects, in a most provocative manner, that exact fear. It was strange for my friend to read through a life story of a character (albeit imaginary) who experienced the nastiness of fellow humans—both female and male.

It’s not the nastiness that gives this book its bitter aftertaste. Lots of books are nasty. It’s the level of nastiness.

For me, this book was a bit dull for a long time before it got interesting. It got interesting when the characters in the book—all women, all of who were kidnapped, bound in chains, and made to slave away without even knowing why or by whom—realised that the food was running out. That likely says a lot more about me than in does about the book itself, but the moral of the story is that when times become hard and everything seems bleak, when women become desperate for freedom (in a manner of speaking), they’ll betray anyone. Even those they considered friends, sisters, and fellow sufferers.

That’s it. That’s what the story says. In a fast-paced, realistic, Australian narrative, we follow the lives of a handful of women who under intense stress, display what it means to be human.

So many people who’ve read this book call it horrible and evil and other adjectives that mean the same. But it’s none of that. It’s chillingly real. If it were all men instead of women, the outcome probably would’ve been similar. However, because this book spotlights human weakness in a way that most of us know but can’t come to terms with, it’s sparked a lot of debate.

For instance, one of the most common responses to this book is whether women could ever be such bitches to each other. In this modern world where women are collectively braving the trials of male chauvinism and patriarchy, will women turn against each other when provoked?

The answer is a responding yes. And that’s hard to deal with. But deal with it we should because that behaviour has nothing to do with them being women—it’s human nature. Hence the title.

Is this the greatest book I’ve ever read? No.

Has this book changed the way I see the world? Probably not. (But that’s also because I’ve always believed humans will be the downfall of humans. I’m not exactly a ray of sunshine.)

But is this book even worth reading? Hell yes.

Because it forces us to look at reality and accept it. To understand that in our weakest moments, we may lose everything we’re made of. And that’s ok, because humans aren’t perfect. We will all break at some point and being aware of it might help us stay intact for just a little longer.

Making peace with silence

Writer’s block is just a symptom of feeling like you have nothing to say, combined with the rather weird idea that you should feel the need to say something. Why? If you have something to say, then say it. If not, enjoy the silence while it lasts. The noise will return soon enough.

Hugh McLeod, Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity

I’m away on holiday for a couple of weeks, and until I get back with more haiku and photographs, I’m sharing some of my favourite quotes. Hope you enjoy!

If you want more, check these out:

Travel haiku | Musings about life | Copywriting adventures

Book of Colours

Who doesn’t love a determined, self-sufficient heroine? One that doesn’t need saving from her male counterpart. Or even from herself—a common theme in feminist novels nowadays.

Tangent aside, a female lead who knows what she wants, accepts her hurdles, and yet still strategically perseveres towards achieving her passion is someone born for that. We often say talent is inherent. But everyone is talented in some way or the other. What matters is how much they invest in honing that talent. That’s the difference between Van Gogh and Random Dude. I bring this all up now because I’ve just read Book of Colours, an excellent historical fiction that celebrates a woman artist—or in this case, a limner.

Cover of 'Book of Colours' by Robyn Cadwallader

I know how that sounds, but it’s not what you’d expect. It’s not the story of a young girl who finds her passion for art, grows up facing many challenges, and finally gets the recognition she deserves. That’s the equivalent of the ‘damsel in distress saved by the hero’ narrative—the typical, proven theory that satisfies the masses on any given day. Though such a plot has its place in novel writing, this one is way different.

It’s about a woman who’s painted all her life—from childhood, assisting her father, also a limner. Everyone around her knows her capabilities. However, she’s a 14th-century woman in England. Women of that period weren’t even allowed to read, let alone paint. This is the story of Gemma, the brilliant artist, and her husband, who’s also a brilliant artist, except he’s known nationwide for his talent. They receive a project to design and create a Book of Hours (an illustrated book of prayers) for a wealthy landlord far, far away.

But this is not the story of Gemma. The writer never once tells the reader that Gemma is the main character. You either realise it, or you don’t. Either way, you’ll enjoy the book.

As the story begins, we follow Will, a young artist running away from his hometown. He ends up working with the master limner and his wife, Gemma. From there, we watch as Will’s life unfolds—as he works with the couple on their project, how he becomes essential for the book and its owner, and how he blends into the family.

Our introduction to Gemma comes through Will’s eyes. And so we see her as a cold, doubtful woman who clearly hates him from the moment her husband invited him in. He’s shocked when he realises she paints, torn between her knack for translating words into pictures and the unacceptable reality of her being allowed to paint. And yet, between them grows a friendship that’s unlike any other. As highly-gifted artists, they spend a lot of time in each other’s presence, heads bent low, each immersed in their own battle.

Like all good characters, Will also evolves from a typical man who looks down on a woman painter to accepting her skill. But that transition is so artfully done—he doesn’t run into a raging feminist who changes his mind about women doing other than housework. He doesn’t have a flash of understanding about patriarchy that completely changes him overnight. Instead, it’s a gradual change of mind, a progression that’s incomplete even as the story ends. As a skilful limner himself, he admires Gemma’s talent.

For a long time, he believes she’s protected only by his and her husband’s silence. As someone who enjoys realistic characters, it was refreshing to see that Will still had a lot of room to grow. He’s not perfect, and that’s a perfect place to end his story.

Though Gemma herself goes through many changes as the story progresses, her situation largely remains unchanged—quite an unexpected ending for a character of that magnitude. She doesn’t get the recognition she deserves. Only the characters who knew about her passion for the art at the beginning know about it in the end—plus Will, of course. And yet, we see her evolve into a more complete and aware person. She’s another example of a realistic character—no drastic, dramatic incidents to topple her underlying beliefs. Every good change happens gradually. And that’s why this book is such a good read. The author has done one hell of a job, and I’m glad I read it.

A note on bad reviews

I recently attended a panel discussion about going and receiving criticism. The panel consisted of writers, reviewers, and art critics. It was an hour-long showering of insightful opinions and ideas that I had to note down and mull over. As I mulled over, an incredible urge to write them down gnawed my brain.

One of the points that a writer of over 30 books, brought up is that in this age of social media, writing as an art has taken a massive turn. People can now share their opinions with the greater world even as they watch a movie, read a book, or wander through an art exhibition.

And that got me thinking.

From being a slow, iterative process like a stewing stump of steak, creating art has now become quicker, like pre-packaged chicken caesar salad, to offer instant gratification for souls so eager to tweet out their amusing reactions to a book as early as five pages in.

Since writers and other artists are aware of the instantaneous effects that the audience’s opinions will have on their work, they tend to take safer strides in their writing. Afraid of being criticised by people who don’t see what they see, artists adjust their art to satisfy the audience that happens to see their work. As a result, art becomes tailored for a specific audience, instead of reflecting the artist’s being.

Bad reviews and harsh criticism isn’t always about the artwork. In most cases, especially in today’s social media-powered world, adverse reactions come from people who didn’t necessarily enjoy the work. This also means that the art hasn’t reached those who would enjoy and appreciate it. When put that way, any review becomes mildly questionable. Sure, this reader hated the book. But there may well be other readers who’d love the book but haven’t read or reviewed it yet.

That’s a good reason not to rely too much on reviews.

St. John’s Wort, a review

St. John's Wort, a poetry collection written by Alexus Erin. Published by Animal Heart Press.

It’s hard to say what Alexus imagined when she titled this book, St. John’s Wort. It’s the name of a European medicinal shrub known for treating depression. Like most of the world, if you consider the book at face value, you’ll think it’s therapeutic, that it calms and elevates your experiences. 

It does. 

However, as you read through the poems, over and over again, to make sure you don’t miss a beat or the depth of meaning folded neatly in between lines and stanzas, you’ll realise that Mayo Clinic was perhaps right. As one of the top possible side effects of St. John’s wort (the shrub), it lists agitation. Which is what you feel when you’ve read these poems.

Alexus doesn’t look at the world around her and burst into flowery language. Instead, her poems are deliberate. Each line, each syllable rings with meaning, and whether or not you directly relate to it, you feel what she sees, and you see what she feels.

Imagery is for the ear as much as it is for the eye, you learn as she describes in Laughter,

“I know God laughed
when night bathed tabletop-
tabletop cradled the New York Times, a pound cake. I sang carols over the brushed, high-hat hiss of a Vanilla Coke can.”

Alexus’s poetry isn’t simple. Layers upon layers of complexity lie in each poem, and she makes you work to reap the sweet benefits of the sadness lingering in those hard words. 

“When I learned my father had an aneurysm, I thought about the day his brother had the aneurysm.
I thought about Plath, then Hughes
then about how suddenly I needed to buy pudding
from the grocery store.”

When referencing a father dying of aneurysm, not everyone draws a parallel with Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy“, where she confesses struggling to forgive her father’s involvement in the Holocaust and his lack of self-care that resulted in a gradual demise. Alexus cleverly matches the Plath reference with the seemingly related Hughes, while instead, with a subtle streak, alluding to pulmonary artery aneurysms, a rare autoimmune disease first described by British physicians Hughes and Stovin.

Good poetry resounds though your being, leaving blotches of reality, like ink on paper, marking you for life. This collection of poems takes it further—you have to marvel at Alexus’s wordliness, the way she’s melded poetry with dark reality, and the way she’s dejargoned medicine, revealing it in bits, like droplets on whiskey, just enough to hit you with a boldness that momentarily disarms you.

It’s not, however, a book you need to pair with a high-edition dictionary—although a nice Riesling surely complements. Scattered throughout the book, in snippets that speak the truth as it is, are poems so simple and so pristine that you can’t help but pause to inhale the beauty of words.

“What among us won’t, one day,
Be turned inside out?”

She asks in such tepidity that it strikes you, slices through your pretence, as intense as hot knife through cold butter.

Alexus ends that poem, Year of the Rabbit Hole, hinting at self-help, while artfully voiding her voice of the unworthiness that comes with such books.

This collection is a chain, flaunting a range of topics, all bound by the string of tragedy. Every poem is an ode to an incident in life—sometimes personal, often not—leaving you with a shudder, questioning you, and enticing you to question the world you see.


Musings from reading St. John’s Wort, a poetry collection written by Alexus Erin and published by Animal Heart Press.