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Thea Astley, The multiple effects of rain shadow (Review)

May 7, 2010

There are two main reasons why I like – actually love – to read Thea Astley. One is her language, her wonderful way with words that may, at times, be over-the-top but that is never clichéd. The other is her passion for the underdog, and thus for social justice in a world where it is often conspicuously absent.

Island, Palm and Sun

Island with palm, because Penguin will not answer emails regarding bookcover use (Courtesy: OCAL, via clker.com)

The multiple effects of rainshadow is Astley’s second last novel. Its overall subject matter is, as one character says late in the book, “the unmoored behaviour of humans”, an effective image given the book’s central motif is an island. It has a very loose plot which is based on an actual event that occurred on Palm Island in 1930. Palm Island was, at that time, essentially a dumping ground for problem indigenous Australians, but the event in question concerned the white superintendent, mad with grief at the recent death of his wife, running amok and setting fire to buildings (including his own home in which his children were sleeping). He was eventually shot (and killed) by an indigenous man under the (cowardly) order of the white deputy superintendent. The novel explores, through multiple points of view and over a period of around 30 years, the impact of this event on six white people who were present on the island at the time – but interspersed between these voices is the voice of Manny, the man who shot the super. This is, I think, a pretty risky thing to do but Astley is not one to shy away from risks in her writing.

The voices are, in chapter order:

  • Manny Cooktown, first person, the indigenous “shooter” and main narrator who commences the story and appears between each voice, but does not conclude the novel
  • Mrs Curthoys, first person, landlady on Palm Island at the time of the incident
  • Gerald Morrow, third person, writer/editor who had gone to the Island to work as a foreman, for which he had no skill or experience, and who was in fact escaping the Island in a boat at the time of the incident
  • Captain Brodie, third person, the Superintendant who ran amok and was shot by Manny
  • Mr Vine, third person, a school teacher on the Island at the time of the incident
  • Father Donellan, third person, priest who visits regularly from the mainland and is responsible for the Island’s religious “needs”
  • Leonie née Curthoys, first person, daughter of Mrs Curthoys and so on the Island at the time of the incident
  • Omniscient author who carries the last chapter

Looks complex eh? But in fact it’s pretty straightforward in terms of knowing who is who, as each voice “manages” its own chapter. The chronology is a little trickier as many of the characters (let’s call them that from now on) flip between their present (some are writing from many years after the event) and the past. Did you notice that the first person voices belong to the two groups most recognised by Astley as disadvantaged: women and indigenous Australians? A subtle but clever use of her narrative structure to give them a voice!

The setting is, after all, very much a white patriarchal world, and marriage is seen in that light. Vine, for example, is told to get a wife  for

‘The boring bits. You know. Meals. Washing. Shopping. Kids. All that sort of thing. A man hasn’t time for that sort of thing.’

‘Why not a housekeeper, then?’

‘You are green. Cost too much …’

Not surprisingly Mrs Curthoys and Leonie do not find marriage much to their liking. The main underdogs in this novel though are the indigenous people, many of whom are brought to the Island – and therefore separated from their country – as problems, and are treated with disdain at best and real cruelty at worst by most of the white residents (from 1918 when the settlement begins to 1957 when the book closes). Astley offers, I’m afraid, little hope. She is not a cheery writer: her goal is to shock us into attention – and that she does. However, I can imagine some critics accusing her of putting contemporary views about feminism and indigenous relations in characters’ mouths. I would argue though that contemporary ideas do not spring from a vacuum, and that therefore the occasional more sensitive/egalitarian views expressed in the novel are historically valid.

I said at the beginning of this review that one of the main reasons I like Thea Astley is her language, so here are some examples of her imagery:

…whistlestop hamlets scattered along briefly tarred roads that led to further sprawls moated by loneliness …  [from school-teacher Vine, heading to a country school]

And I am weary of  a Celtic charm that is shaken like spice over any dish within gulping reach. We bore each other rancid. [Leonie on marriage and her philandering husband]

At least I’ll have tried. At least I’ll be learning to decline the gumleaf, conjugate the seasons. [Vine’s “do-gooder” son Matthew]

She also effectively mixes up the rhythm to make points or convey feeling, using short snappy sentences, repetition of phrases (such as Morrow’s “swing dip drag” as he sails across the sea), and punctuation-free streams of consciousness:

There was an unalterable plane geometry to his movements: the clock the tea/toast the clock the bell the classroom the toted piles of exercise books the bell the repeated texts the stale jokes the texts the bell the common-room bitchings the clock the bell … the … the … [schoolteacher Vine]

Astley is often quite self-conscious about the act and role of writing, and this is certainly the case in this novel. I’ll give just one example, the bitter rant of failed writer Gerald Morrow, who is jealous of the success of another, to him, lesser writer:

There must be a million readers out there who crave boredom! Who love the dangling participle! Who wallow in truisms and fatuous theorisings! … Slap in your popular aphorisms, buddy, but don’t make ’em think!

You could never accuse Astley of not making you think, but there has to be some irony here, some little sense of self-deprecation even, in the fact that she put these words in the mouth of a failed writer, as if she knew that for all her passion there’s only so much you can achieve with words. That may be so, but Astley has given it a darned good try!

Thea Astley
The multiple effects of rainshadow
Camberwell: Penguin, 1996
296pp.
ISBN:  9780143180265

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. May 7, 2010 12:43 am

    “The unmoored behaviour of humans”–sounds like something I’d enjoy. I have read two Astleys: reaching Tin River and the Slow Natives. So this one will be explored too.
    Thanks

  2. May 7, 2010 4:46 am

    You’re really making me itch to read Astley, Sue, what with this post and your recent nomination of Drylands on my blog!

    Re: cover usage. My understanding is that you don’t have to worry about copyright issues if you are using the cover image as part of a review (because you are essentially marketing/promoting the book).

    • May 7, 2010 9:11 am

      Kimbofo: As an Aussie you really must! LOL. I’ll let you off Jane Austen if you read Astley instead – now that’s a huge concession from me, so you should take it up while you’re ahead!

      Re bookcovers, I think you are right practically but I am on a mission to get publishers to agree to this. None of them (that I’ve read so far) mention cover images in their terms and conditions, and I think they should make this clear. Most companies I’ve written to have given blanket approval, one prevaricated for a while until they checked with their rights people, and a few, including Penguin (to whom I’ve emailed at least twice) have not replied. SO, they don’t get their promotion!

      BTW, I don’t think Copyright regs usually allow you to use content because you are marketing/promoting, but most allow the use of some content for the purposes of review, research, study. Hence, we are allowed to quote small bits of text. Covers are a different thing … if you do an Internet search on the issue you find a real mish-mash of opinions and fact. On top of this there is the issue of different regs in different countries: the USA has “fair use” provisions that, as I recollect, are a little different to Australia’s. So, practically, I think most publishers like it – for obvious reasons – but legally I think the issue is not clear. However, I know you are in the publishing industry so if you have some facts you can point me to on this that would be great. But, in the meantime, it’s my quiet little mission!

      • May 7, 2010 9:50 am

        Well, under UK media law it’s okay to use book covers for purposes of a review. What are they going to do in Oz — sue you for using an image that you haven’t paid for? They seems more trouble than it’s worth.

  3. May 7, 2010 6:03 am

    Your review did not bore me rancid. In fact, the opposite. I’ve read a couple of novels by Thea Astley, but it’s been a while, and I must re-visit.

  4. May 7, 2010 9:02 am

    Guy: I’ve read 6 or so of hers, but not Slow natives which I have in my TBR pile. I really should have read it, rather than re-read this one but I wanted to re-read this one because of recent events on Palm Island which suggest that not enough has changed there.

    Tony: So glad I did not bore you rancid – I nearly did though as I could have written 3000 words on this, not 1000! Which Astleys have you read? And did you like them? I think her earlier works were exuberantly laden with imagery, while her later ones are much tighter while still being highly “imagistic”.

    • May 12, 2010 12:45 pm

      I read two Thea Astley novels in 1991. I read ‘Beach Masters’ which I gave a rating of **** out of **** stars. (Some years I used a five-star system but not 1991. Then I read “Reaching Tin River’ which I gave ** out of **** stars.

      • May 12, 2010 3:59 pm

        That’s interesting Tony.. I haven’t read Beachmasters, but I have read Reaching Tin River and recollect liking it, though I must admit it hasn’t stuck in the head as strongly as the one I read before it (A kindness cup) or the ones after, so perhaps that’s saying something! I would have read it around 1990 I think.

  5. May 7, 2010 10:39 am

    No, kimbofo, they’re not likely to – it’s just, as I said, my little game to encourage clarity. Take UK Media Law – does that work if you use the image from an Australian or American publisher? Again, no-one’s likely to come after a blogger. The worse they are likely to do is tell you to remove the image – and they are unlikely to do that really. Again, it’s just my little game! Small things, and all that – LOL!

  6. May 8, 2010 4:36 pm

    My Rainshadow has just zoomed up the Anytime TBR and onto the 2010 TBR, Sue!
    Thanks:)

    • May 8, 2010 4:46 pm

      Great to hear Lisa … I look forward to your take. I thought you’d read this one? But sounds like not. You’ve read Drylands though haven’t you. (I’m currently reading, at last, Lovesong – so different to Astley but am enjoying it. Will read your review properly when I’m done)

  7. May 8, 2010 8:53 pm

    Sue, after this compelling post & your guest post on K’s blog, Thea Astley has zoomed up my TBR list. Many thanks, again, for the introduction/recommendation.
    Aphra Behn would probably recognise some of the plaints of the female characters in ‘The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow’ – and be cheering ’em on from her place in Poet’s Corner, too! As would Mary Wolstonecraft and, much more recently (!), Virginia Woolf.

    • May 8, 2010 9:42 pm

      Thanks Minnie … if all this results in more people appreciating more of her books I’m thrilled so thanks for letting me know. I like your allusion to Behn, Wollstonecraft and Woolf. Good catch!

  8. May 10, 2010 5:24 pm

    This sounds like a great, thought-provoking book. I wonder why it’s not listed on high school curriculum! The issues are all so relevant even in today’s society and I think it’s important to maintain awareness of indigenous inequality. I had no idea that Palm Island was the dumping ground which pretty much proves my point. I’m really looking forward to reading Astley!

    • May 10, 2010 5:33 pm

      Very good question. In fact, it seems to me that there is too little Aus Lit taught in high schools and university here. Is that your experience? I look forward to reading your take on Astley, when you get around to reading it.

      • May 11, 2010 10:48 pm

        Yes, we rarely concentrated on Australian lit but I know our school did try. It was also because there was so much disinterest in students, myself included. In my experience, there was more emphasis on Aust lit in the junior high school years then it petered out in the senior years. Aust lit seems more popular in junior fiction though with writers like John Marsden, Paul Jennings, etc. But then, how do we define Aust lit? Novels set in Australia with Australian issues or books written by Aust authors?

  9. May 11, 2010 11:14 pm

    Ah yes, of course, in the earlier years people like Marsden would get decent “airplay”. From my point of view, in terms of Aus Lit at school, I’d probably define it fairly narrowly to works written by Australian authors, just because I think we need to get them noticed and read more. From a library collection point of view, though, I’d define it more widely because I’d be looking at covering the whole “by, of, about” gamut.

  10. August 10, 2012 9:25 am

    Just finished this last night and LOVED it. I hadn’t noticed that she’d used 1st person narrative for women and indigenous characters, so thank you for pointing that out.

    • August 10, 2012 5:44 pm

      Oh welcome Kimberley. Glad to be of service but even gladder that you liked the book. Have you read others of hers? Everytime someone comments here on one of my Astley posts I feel the itch to read another of her books!

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  1. ‘The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow’ by Thea Astley « The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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