Bill curates: Favourite writers: 3, Thea Astley

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

Lisa’s ANZLL Thea Astley Week runs from 17 – 25 August so I thought it would be timely to skip ahead a bit as we make our way through the best of Sue’s older posts and pull out a couple of her half dozen or so Thea Astley posts (I’m going to have to go back and discover who favourite writers 1 and 2 are).

My original post titled: “Favourite writers: 3, Thea Astley”

I love its densely woven grammar, its ingrained humour, its uncompromising politics, and its undimmed outrage at human folly, stupidity and greed (Kerryn Goldsworthy on Thea Astley’s writing)


Great story, great characters … Stylistically, however, this book is like a very handsome, strong and fit woman with too much makeup on … This kind of writing drives me berserk” (Helen Garner, on Astley’s “An item from the late news”)

Despite winning four Miles Franklin awards along with several other major Australian literary awards, Thea Astley(1925-2004) has to be one of Australia’s most underappreciated writers. The two quotes above, from two significant Australian literati, give us a clue why. She was uncompromising and gutsy in her subject matter and she took risks with her style. This made her a pretty controversial writer. It also makes her great for discussion by reading groups (if they’re prepared to give her a try!)

Before I continue, though, I need to be honest. Her career spanned over 40 years and some 15 or so novels, as well as countless short stories, essays and articles, but I have only read about half of the novels and a few short stories. I’ve read enough though, from her mid career A kindness cup (1974) to her last novel Drylands (1999) to know that I like her and want to read more.

Thea Astley, DrylandsTake Drylands, for example. It covers a lot of the things important to Astley. Two major ones are words and their importance/their power, and people’s cruelty to each other. Subsumed in this latter one are some recurrent issues for her – gender, race, and other power imbalances. She has several targets in this book: she’s not too fussed on computers, television, or our sports-mad society; she’s also critical about how women are treated, not to mention indigenous people and ‘oddballs’. She’s a writer with a strong social conscience – and, for example, tackled race issues head on in books like the ironically titled A kindness cup (1974) and the gorgeously titled The multiple effects of rainshadow (1996).

But it’s not her subject matter that loses her fans so much as her writing. It can be dense…though it can have a sly humour too. She once said in an interview with Candida Baker that “I can’t resist using imagistic language. I like it. I really don’t do it to annoy reviewers”! It’s how she thinks. Here, for example, are some lines describing a town and its “barbaric” Christmas from the first page of the novel, An item from the late news (1982), referred to by Helen Garner in my opening quotes:

…the beer-gut belchings and the rattle of schooner glasses that always discover the Christmas crib and soothe the infant with whack yoicks seem to me to have a muckworm style. All towns. Not just this one. Because this one is smaller, a mere speck on the world’s glassy eye, the grossness is horribly apparent.

Time usually diminishes the memory; but for me it has done nothing but magnify that swollen moment of history when Wafer had the wax on his wings melted from flying too close, not to the sun, but to the local grandees.

Astley, as you can see, is rather critical of small town Australia…and small towns are the common settings for her books. I’m not sure why I, an optimist, like her jaded view of the world. Perhaps being an optimist enables me to take on board her concerns – concerns that are hard to argue against – without being ground down by them?  Anyhow, in 2002 she won a much-deserved, I think, special award at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for being ‘a trailblazer’.

I hope, if you haven’t read her before, that this has whetted your appetite. I’ll say no more but end with a favourite line, with which I identify, from Drylands :

… she had never been harried by the glamour of any possessions but books.

(Note: You may notice that some of the content of this blog is also on Wikipedia. Please don’t accuse me of plagiarism: what I’ve used here is material I put there!)


Bill said in his introduction that he’ll have to suss out my first and second favourite writers. I wonder what he’ll think when he does? I haven’t written another Favourite Writers post but have considered it many times. How many favourite writers can I have, I’ve wondered? Anyhow, I do have a couple of writers in mind for 4 and 5, and may write them up one day.

Meanwhile, do you plan to take part in Lisa’s Thea Astley week, and, if so, what do you plan to read?

35 thoughts on “Bill curates: Favourite writers: 3, Thea Astley

  1. Bill, I am sure you could guess author #1 with 100% accuracy, and #2 will not surprise. I used Google to “suss” this out.

      • Well there you go Neil, my own biases are showing and I assumed Sue meant Australian authors. I wonder who my own 1, 2 and 3 are. Eve Langley would be in there somewhere. If I were on that mythical desert island I would take all her 4,200 mostly unpublished pages and happily read my way through them over and over.

        My review for Lisa’s week is Drylands, which I read and wrote weeks ago. I wish I was half as insightful about Astley as you, Sue, are above.

        • Haha Bill. I didn’t say favourite Aussie authors, now did I!! However, 4 and 5 are Aussie, if I do them, making four of the five being Aussie. I love Langley’s The pea pickers, but my favourites tend to have larger bodies of work.

          I love Drylands. I’d happily read it again. I guess I really love Astley. I started An item from the late news this morning. Very Astley. Dense but such evocative writing. I will aim to get it reviewed by the middle of the week, if I can.

    • Lucky you! Busy day here with apartment clearing (getting there), shopping (just done), visiting Dad (in a minute) and back to apartment clearing (almost done I hope!!). I look forward to your reports. There were a couple I’d love to have attended.

  2. Dropping by thanks to time off in the middle of the sessions. I’ve managed to squeeze in a walk for the dog too, so she’s happy:)

    OK; I’ll be predictable and bite: Oh that is soooo Garner, soooo judgemental. Why can’t a “handsome, strong and fit woman” wear “too much” makeup if she wants to… and what a cheap shot at a fellow Australian writer, and one who has won *four* Miles Franklin awards. I bet Astley was dead by the time Garner wrote this, or she would have had a taste of Astley vitriol in return!

    This reminds me of a certain writer of LitFic who rated all the OzLit she read at Goodreads with one-star. Tackled over it (not by me) she adjusted some but not all. Well, nobody expects writers to feel universal love for their fellow Australian authors, but there’s no need to be shabby about it. [Edited at LH’s request]

    I’ve read Girl with a Monkey and scheduled it for the 17th, what a brilliant debut:)

    • I’ve located that person on Goodreads after reading your comment Lisa – methinks the green eyed monster is at work there!

    • Haha, Lisa, and I’ll be predictable and argue back. In fact, Thea knew about this review, and apparently her husband was grumpy about it, but there are a few references to Helen Garner in Inventing her own weather, and they tend to be positive. Astley and she apparently even talked about a joint project. They shared a love of music. On p. 288/9, Lamb writes, when talking about Astley’s growing profile, “Interviewers easily related the concerns of Tin River to her earlier works, especially to music. The ‘Rustle of Spring’ parody had amused music buffs. Helen Garner – who was writing to Thea quite often – even joked that she might learn the piece.”

      In her Yellow notebook, Garner speaks of a kind thing Astley said to her when she, Garner, won an award. Astley was known for being good with up and coming writers.

      I read Garner’s comment as appreciating Astley’s story and characters but just not liking her evocative style which is so different to her own. She and Astley could both be outspoken. I suspect Garner probably came around a bit – but whatever, the case, she and Astley seem to have enjoyed a warm relationship.

      I’m impressed that you managed a break and a walk with the dog, in the middle of five sessions.

  3. I don’t think I could name a favourite Astley, I like all of them in different ways – Coda was terrific – but I haven’t yet read every book by her – I didn’t think Reaching Tin River was her best, but it’s still clever and witty and I suspect horrifyingly accurate in its ending – I don’t think Astley can ever be totally disappointing!

    Now I’m going to have to try to check out who your first two favourite writers are Sue!

  4. I wish I had access to Inventing Her Own Weather here Sue – unfortunately the otherwise wonderful library here doesn’t have it – I was interested to read that about The Rustle of Spring in Tin River now I’ve read it for Lisa’s Astley week!

    It’s good to hear that she and Garner got along – yes i think both outspoken feisty women, not always easy to be around! I haven’t had access to the Lamb book for ages so I’m missing it now!

    • That’s a shame Sue – can you ask the library to get it? I’ll probably dip into it a bit this week!

      It’s so long since I’ve read Reaching Tin River that I’d forgotten that.

      • Somewhere you said you liked it Sue – I was wondering what you thought of the ending of Tin River… maybe I can chat about that during Lisa’s Astley week…

  5. Hi Sue, yes I am involved in Lisa’s Thea Astley week. I am a fan of Astley’s novels, and I have many favourites. I will write on Coda. I will also try to reread some of the novels that are given reviews. I would love to read Thea Astley’s poems and I am trying to chase down from the library: Thea Astley: Selected Poems edited by Cheryl Taylor.

  6. I played a DVD on art history last night and was very amused that the background music to it was – you guessed it – Rustle of Spring! I’m going to hear it everywhere after reading Tin River!

  7. There is a pdf download about Astley’s poems if you Google Thea Astley’s Poetry: A Prequel to her Fiction. A rather interesting article!

        • Hi to the two Sue’s – I have downloaded the pdf. It is not all her poetry. but an introduction to some of the poems she wrote. All very interesting, and gives insight to the stories she wrote from her poems. It is worth reading – only 15 pages.

      • Hi Meg! I’m glad you found the pdf – I found it interesting! There are a few other articles about Astley and her poetry online, I Googled around for a bit and found a couple of interesting articles about her. The book of her selected poems is available on Ebay Australia for about $25 – but I hope you can get the library to get it for you. Best wishes!

      • Meg I might be finding things of no use to you, or that you’ve already read, but there’s a nice little critique of her book of poems if you Google To You – The Reader: Thea Astley selected poems.

  8. Sue, so frustrating that Astley lived in Epping North, where I grew up; taught at my High School and at my University, and I missed her – drat! I was just too late!

  9. Pingback: Thea Astley Week, midweek roundup | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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