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UNSW PhD candidate Charlotte Wood has won the $50,000 Stella Prize for writing by Australian women with her novel The Natural Way of Things.

UNSW Vice-Chancellor and President Ian Jacobs joined those congratulating Wood, a PhD student in the School of Arts and Media.

The Natural Way of Things, Wood’s fifth novel, is a dystopian tale about 10 women who are forced into hard labour on an isolated property after their involvement in sex scandals with powerful men.

The Stella Prize judges described it as “a novel of – and for – our times” and “a riveting and necessary act of critique”.

The Stella Prize, in its fourth year, celebrates the writing of Australian women. Named after My Brilliant Career author Stella Miles Franklin, it aims to bring more readers to books written by women.

Stephanie Bishop, a creative writing lecturer in UNSW's School of the Arts and Media, was on the Stella Prize longlist for her novel The Other Side of the World.

Wood, who will graduate with her PhD in June, said she was honoured and grateful beyond words to win the award and spoke of the importance of literature as a force for good in an embattled world.

“It often feels to me that we have entered a new dark age – an age in which science is rejected in favour of greed and superstition, in which our planet is in desperate need of rescue; an age in which bigotry and religion are inseparable, and presidential candidates promise to punish women for controlling their own bodies,” she said in her acceptance speech. “I feel that in the midst of this gloom we need art more than ever.”

Wood said the $50,000 prize money would give her the time and mental space to work, and hoped it would “stake a claim for literature as an essential social benefit, in and of itself”.

Last month The Natural Way of Things won best novel and book of the year at the Indie Book Awards. It is on the longlist for the Miles Franklin Award. The shortlist will be announced next month and the winner unveiled in June.

Wood is appearing at a number of Sydney Writers’ Festival events next month, although several sessions have already sold out.