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Thea Astley, Drylands (Review, of sorts)

December 28, 2014

I read Thea Astley’s Drylands many, many years ago now, so what I’m going to share here – inspired by my post earlier this year on confronting Australian novels – are the notes I made when I read it. They are not particularly well-formed, because I wasn’t planning a review at the time, though I must admit that I did spend some time skimming it as I tried to massage my notes into some shape. Too hard not to! It’s her last novel, and it earned Astley her fourth Miles Franklin Award (shared with Kim Scott’s Benang).

Drylands is subtitled “a book for the world’s last reader”. It’s one of those tricky books that looks like a collection of short stories but is, albeit perhaps loosely defined, a novel. Its structure comprises sections titled “Meanwhile” by the so-called writer of the stories, Janet, alternated with stories about inhabitants of, or visitors to, a dying town called Drylands:

a God-forgotten tree-stump of a town halfway to nowhere whose population (two hundred and seventy-four) was tucked for leisure either in the bar of the Legless Lizard or in front of television screens, videos, Internet adult movies or PlayStation games for the kiddies.

[…]

No one was reading anymore.

It’s a town “being outmanoeuvred by the weather. As simple as that. Drought. Dying stock.”

The main subject of these stories are three men (Franzi Massig, farmer Jim Randler and the indigenous Benny Shoforth) and three women (Evie the writing teacher, Lannie Cunneen, and Joss the publican’s wife). This is all quite neat, except that we are thrown somewhat by the fact that the “Janet” character may be a conceit dreamed up by Evie, who says she will “write a story … about a woman in an upstairs room above a main street in a country town, writing a story about a woman writing a story”. Since Janet is an inhabitant of Drylands while Evie is not, it makes sense that this might be Evie’s work, not Janet’s, making Evie both character and observer*. Another spanner in the narrative-voice-works is that two of the stories – those of Franzi Massig and Joss – are told first person. I might be reading too much into it, but I wonder if Astley is using this uncertainty to mirror the disorder she sees in society, if that makes sense.

Drylands explores many of the issues important to Astley. The two overriding ones are words and their importance/power, and the impoverishment of the spirit (often related to our inhumanity). Subsumed in the latter are some of Astley’s recurrent issues – gender and race, dispossession and power imbalances. She rails against the shallowness and small-mindedness that lead to poor treatment of “other” (indigenous people, women, less educated people, the ageing, etc), to “the powerlessness”, as Benny calls it, “of poverty and colour”. Here is a husband coming to drag his wife out of her writing class to get him his lunch:

He was hurling words at his shrinking wife like clods or bricks and she was not dodging but receiving them like a willing saint, enduring abuse like a terrible balm.

I wonder what Astley would have written about our treatment of asylum-seekers had she still been around, but unfortunately she died in 2004.

Thea Astley is, as you’ve probably gathered, an unsettling writer – and one with some very strong viewpoints. Besides being unimpressed by how women, indigenous people, and ‘oddballs’ (or outsiders) are treated, she’s also not too fussed about computers, television, and our sports-mad society. For these reasons I’m inclined to agree with Kerryn Goldsworthy that there’s a dystopian element to her vision. I didn’t pick it at first because I tend to see dystopian novels as being speculative or fable or allegorical, as being, in other words, about what “might be” rather than what “is”. The handmaid’s tale is a dystopian novel that is not specifically set in the future but neither is it set in a recognisable “real” world. Lord of the flies and Animal farm are dystopian views of the world that are not set in the future but, arguably, neither do they present a realistic community/society/place. Drylands, though, is recognisably our world, but a pretty grim version of it, which suggests dystopia. It’s probably worth noting here that Drylands was published in 1999, that is, at the end of the millennium.

Regardless of formal definition, though, Drylands, like dystopian novels, is pervaded by a sense of hopelessness. There are likable people – many – but life isn’t easy or happy for them. There are, however, some positive or redemptive hints, particularly for Clem and Joss. Janet, the linking character, on the other hand, can only glimmer the fact that there might be something out there:

There was something out there, but she doubted she would ever discover. The idiocy of her wasted years made her laugh even more.

There were no endings no endings no

awwchallenge2014The writing in Drylands, though sometimes colourful, is sparer, more restrained than we are used to from Astley – and just right for a bitter tale about lack of literacy, loss of reading skills, and the implications thereof. Janet’s mother tells her that “being unable to read is being crippled for life”. Janet, writing her story, worries whether she’s getting her narrative right, but decides it’s “better for readers to frolic with their own assumptions from the words spoken, the deeds done” – which is, perhaps, the ultimate irony if everyone has lost the ability to read! If you only ever read one Astley, you couldn’t go wrong with this one.

Thea Astley
Drylands
Ringwood: Viking, 1999
294pp
ISBN: 9780670884704

* There is a scene in “Stranger in town”, where Evie briefly meets the eyes of the woman (whom we know is Janet) living above the newsagency.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. December 29, 2014 10:22 am

    Ooh, call me intrigued! That subtitle got me interested and then your dystopian not really dystopian description hooked me. Sadly my library doesn’t have this but it looks like I should be able to get it through interlibrary loan. Which means I will have to plan on reading it. Now, I wonder when I can manage that?

    • December 29, 2014 11:29 am

      Good question Stefanie! I’ll be watching, just in case you do find space for it!

  2. Glen Hunting permalink
    December 29, 2014 11:50 am

    ‘Morning Sue,

    I’ve only skimmed your review in case I want to read Drylands one day…I generally won’t even read back cover blurbs before I finish the last page. BUT I recently got hold of a reprint edition of It’s Raining In Mango. Have you read it? If so, how does it compare to Drylands?

    • December 29, 2014 11:59 am

      Hi Glen, yes, I’m like you. I don’t read reviews and rarely read back-cover blurbs too, which means that I’m often surprised to discover what a book is about!

      I have read It’s raining in Mango, but a long time ago, so my memory in terms of comparing the two is not great. There are similar themes there as I recollect about dominant cultures and the poor treatment of the powerless or anyone who is or dares to be different. The style is more “out there” I think in terms of her use of metaphor and highly expressive figurative language in general. It’s different though in its more epic time span. It’s well worth reading Glen.

      Astley, I think, had a love-hate relationship with small communities and Mango, like many of her novels, reflects this.

      • Glen Hunting permalink
        December 29, 2014 12:48 pm

        Curiosity duly piqued. I’ll let you know how it goes! 🙂

        • December 30, 2014 12:08 am

          That’s wonderful Glen. I look forward to your response. If you don’t like it, that’s fine, but I really hope you do.

  3. Meg permalink
    December 29, 2014 12:22 pm

    I enjoyed your musings on Thea Astley, I really love her writing. She does have that hate/love relationships with the environment and people. She is very Australian, and I think she has won four Miles Franklin Awards (haven’t googled!). I hope she continues to be read in Australia.

    • December 29, 2014 1:10 pm

      Yes Meg, she did win four, equalled only by Winton. So glad you like her too .. Too many people don’t appreciate her I think.

  4. Matthew Todd permalink
    December 29, 2014 11:57 pm

    I read this a few months ago, and was struck by many of the things you were, too. Her commitment (I’m not sure that’s the right word, but it’s all I’ve got at the moment) to giving marginalised voices a space is admirable. What’s more, I think she does it brilliantly. The section about the book club not only viciously highlights the violence against women endemic in many small towns, but doesn’t patronise her readers with an easy out.

    tl:dr: I think she’s great. I can’t believe she isn’t celebrated more.

    • December 30, 2014 12:11 am

      Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou Matt. I’m so glad someone else agrees with me regarding her not being celebrated more. It’s hard to find the right words to describe her attitudes and values, I agree, but she is so clear about what she thinks is right and wrong in our society that “commitment” is as good a word as any to describe her desire to give voice to the marginalised.

  5. John permalink
    August 30, 2017 6:15 pm

    Thank you. saved me for my essay on drylands

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  1. ‘Drylands’ by Thea Astley | Reading Matters

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