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
The 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.
Ringwood: Viking, 1999
* 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.