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.