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)
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!)