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Favourite writers: 3, Thea Astley

October 18, 2009

I love its densely woven grammar, its ingrained humour, its uncompromising politics, and its undimmed outrage at human folly, stupidity and greed (Kerryn Goldsworthy on Thea Astley’s writing)

and

Great story, great characters … Stylistically, however, this book is like a very handsome, strong and fit woman with too much makeup on … This kind of writing drives me berserk” (Helen Garner, on Astley’s “An item from the late news”)

Despite winning four Miles Franklin awards along with several other major Australian literary awards, Thea Astley (1925-2004) has to be one of Australia’s most underappreciated writers. The two quotes above, from two significant Australian literati, give us a clue why. She was uncompromising and gutsy in her subject matter and she took risks with her style. This made her a pretty controversial writer. It also makes her great for discussion by reading groups (if they’re prepared to give her a try!)

Before I continue, though, I need to be honest. Her career spanned over 40 years and some 15 or so novels, as well as countless short stories, essays and articles, but I have only read about half of the novels and a few short stories. I’ve read enough though, from her mid career A kindness cup (1974) to her last novel Drylands (1999) to know that I like her and want to read more.

Take Drylands, for example. It covers a lot of the things important to Astley. Two major ones are words and their importance/their power, and people’s cruelty to each other. Subsumed in this latter one are some recurrent issues for her – gender, race, and other power imbalances. She has several targets in this book: she’s not too fussed on computers, television, or our sports-mad society; she’s also critical about how women are treated, not to mention indigenous people and ‘oddballs’. She’s a writer with a strong social conscience – and, for example, tackled race issues head on in books like the ironically titled A kindness cup (1974) and the gorgeously titled The multiple effects of rainshadow (1996).

But it’s not her subject matter that loses her fans so much as her writing. It can be dense…though it can have a sly humour too. She once said in an interview with Candida Baker that “I can’t resist using imagistic language. I like it. I really don’t do it to annoy reviewers”! It’s how she thinks. Here, for example, are some lines describing a town and its “barbaric” Christmas from the first page of the novel, An item from the late news (1982), referred to by Helen Garner in my opening quotes:

…the beer-gut belchings and the rattle of schooner glasses that always discover the Christmas crib and soothe the infant with whack yoicks seem to me to have a muckworm style. All towns. Not just this one. Because this one is smaller, a mere speck on the world’s glassy eye, the grossness is horribly apparent.

Time usually diminishes the memory; but for me it has done nothing but magnify that swollen moment of history when Wafer had the wax on his wings melted from flying too close, not to the sun, but to the local grandees.

Astley, as you can see, is rather critical of small town Australia…and small towns are the common settings for her books. I’m not sure why I, an optimist, like her jaded view of the world. Perhaps being an optimist enables me to take on board her concerns – concerns that are hard to argue against – without being ground down by them?  Anyhow, in 2002 she won a much-deserved, I think, special award at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for being ‘a trailblazer’.

I hope, if you haven’t read her before, that this has whetted your appetite. I’ll say no more but end with a favourite line, with which I identify, from Drylands :

… she had never been harried by the glamour of any possessions but books.

(Note: You may notice that some of the content of this blog is also on Wikipedia. Please don’t accuse me of plagiarism: what I’ve used here is material I put there!)

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2009 4:55 pm

    I’ve just had a look on Library Thing and I’ve got 9, mostly battered old paperbacks…I thought I might work my way through them chronologically, but sometimes it’s more interesting to start with mid career writing and then look back to see the development and when recurring issues begin. What do you think? Begin at the beginning, or zigzag through them at random?

  2. whisperinggums permalink*
    October 18, 2009 5:43 pm

    I looked at my collection when I was writing this and realised I don’t have all that I’ve read – Coda was Mum’s, and The multiple effects of rainshadow and another one were from the Council of Adult Education. I must get my own copies. I have two or three on my TBR – I don’t put my TBR (or books I read but don’t hold) in Library Thing – though perhaps I should.

    Anyhow, this is not answering your question. The earliest of hers I’ve read is A kindness cup. It’s a great one to start with. But, you know, I think you could go any which way as they are quite varied. I think a couple of the earlier ones may be particularly dense (but that may be wrong – it may just be that they were more unusual when they came out and so got that reputation).

    BTW The multiple effects of rainshadow wasn’t the source for that TV series. It’s about Palm Island and the sergeant (I think he was a sergeant) that ran amok there in the 1930s. I’d really like to read it again.

  3. October 18, 2009 11:55 pm

    This is a terrible admission to make, but I don’t think I have ever read anything by Thea Astley before. I do, however, remember selling vast quantities of “Vanishing Point” when it first came out — I was working in a bookstore at the time (obviously).

    A couple of years back I did buy a secondhand copy of “Drylands”, so I must see if I can find it (I suspect it’s in storage; I own too many unread books to keep in my pokey flat), because this post has encouraged me to read it.

  4. whisperinggums permalink*
    October 19, 2009 6:52 am

    It IS a terrible admission! LOL But a common one. I really don’t know why, given the awards she’s won and the length of her career, she is so little read and talked about. She was a great character too I think. (I used to see her roaming the corridors at Macquarie University in the early-mid 70s when she was a tutor there). Funnily enough Vanishing Point is the only one of her last few books that I haven’t read. Must rectify that. Drylands is a great book. Coda is little and a good read – its opening sentence if I remember correctly is “I’m losing my nouns”. That should get writers in! Anyhow, do let me know if you find it and read it. I hope you like it!

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