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Favourite quotes: from Thea Astley’s Coda

January 24, 2015

I’ve decided to start a new, occasional series – a bit like The Conversation does! I have two reasons for this. One is that I’m reading pretty slowly at the moment, partly because my current read is a big one, and partly because life is busy. The other is that during my current decluttering project I’ve come across a lot of old reading notes, and they contain such treasures that I want to share them (not to mention document them so I can toss out my notes!) Who better to start with than Thea Astley?

Coda, published in 1994, was her third last novel (a novella, in fact). You know how readers love to remember favourite first lines? Well, Coda’s first line is one of mine. It starts

I’m losing my nouns, she admitted.

This immediately tells us the main subject matter of the novel – aging – and hints at the speaker’s attitude. Kathleen, our speaker and protagonist, is getting old, and when her house is reclaimed by the government for a right-of-way, her children (daughter mainly) move her into a retirement community. This is a satire, so you won’t be surprised to discover that the name of this village is Passing Downs. Kathleen, needless to say, is not happy. She’s not ready to be, as she says, “corpsed”, but she’s a wily, acerbic old woman, a self-styled “feral-grandmother” who’s pretty clear-eyed about the way life goes, about the

… four ages of women: bimbo, breeder, babysitter, burden.

In a Sydney Morning Herald article written, as it turned out, the year before she died, she is described as one of Australia’s “prose-poets”, who were “led” by Patrick White. You can see it in this line can’t you? The confident alliteration that ensures the words are almost spat out as befits their meaning.

I’m not going to write a review here. It’s too long since I read it, but this is one of those books that has left a lasting impression on me. It’s wicked, funny, bitter and, yes, poignant, too, because it deals with a situation for which there are no simple answers (except, of course, compassion, which is lacking here). I will though share a few more quotes to show the way Astley uses language. You’d be hard-pressed to find a cliche in an Astley book.

Here is a description of, as I recollect (my notes aren’t clear here), her husband’s island dream going sour:

The island had become for him a bright stamp whose colours had run.

Then there’s Kathleen describing her income, her

Public service pension that drizzled brief fortnightly puddles of support into her bank account like a rusty tap.

And here she is, looking for words:

She was scrabbling and rooting about for words in that old handbag of her years.

I love how these images draw on the familiar – and yet they have a freshness that grabs me, and makes me smile, every time I read them.

For a recent review of this novel, check out Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2015 18:24

    Thanks for the link, Sue. I feel the same way as you do about this novel, as will many who confront caring for ageing parents.
    Astley was *such* a brilliant writer! What a loss to our literary community it was when she passed away.

    • January 24, 2015 18:27

      She sure was … she can be so bitter and “funny” at the same time, but with such a heart for what’s real and important.

      • ian darling permalink
        January 24, 2015 20:09

        I had not heard of Thea Astley. Must look her up as those are some terrific zingers!

        • January 24, 2015 21:46

          Oh you must Ian. She was our first writer to win the Miles Franklin award four times. Only Tim Winton has equalled it. And I read that her publisher suggested she not enter some of her novels. She has a wonderful way with words.

  2. January 24, 2015 21:00

    These are so great. The “ages of women” one made me flinch!

  3. January 24, 2015 22:52

    I really love this type of wordiness. I still haven’t read Thea Astley I’m ashamed to say. And I wish I took notes when I read!

    I also agree that the four ages of women is expressed so painfully well.

    • January 24, 2015 23:26

      Yes, Catherine … you, in particular, would, I think, love Astley. And this is probably a great book to start with.

  4. January 25, 2015 14:14

    Terrific quotes, thanks Sue! I’m finally planning to read Astley for the AWW Challenge this year, starting with It’s Raining in Mango.

    • January 25, 2015 14:27

      That’s great Elizabeth. I have read Mango, but around the time it came out. I’d love to read it again, but, she wrote about 15 novels and I’ve only read about half so I need to move on!

  5. January 26, 2015 03:22

    I bet I’d love this. I may even have a copy. Somewhere.

    • January 26, 2015 09:25

      OH, I hope you do, Guy. It’s quite a delicious read and I’m sure you’d agree.

  6. Meg permalink
    January 26, 2015 08:49

    I think of Thea Astley as one of “Australian Natural Living Treasures”. She may have passed on but her writing is alive!

  7. January 27, 2015 04:51

    That is a most excellent first line! All of your quotes are fun. It sounds like a marvelous novel.

  8. Meg permalink
    May 17, 2015 10:05

    Sue you will be pleased to know that Karen Lamb has written a biography on Thea Astley, titled Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather. It receives a good review, and lucky Lisa, (ANZ), already has the book. I am going into the city today for the football today, but I will visit some book shops beforehand and try to purchase it.

    • May 17, 2015 10:57

      Thanks muchly Meg … Yes I’ve heard about it, heard her interviewed on the ABC. Hope to get a copy of it.

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