Bill curates: Thea Astley, Drylands

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.

I selected Drylands because a) this is ANZLL Thea Astley Week; and b) I have just reviewed it myself. Sue apologizes that she relied on “not well-formed” notes, but she came up, as usual, with a well formed and insightful review which I probably should have read before I wrote my own.


My original post titled: “Thea Astley, Drylands (Review, of sorts)”

Thea Astley, DrylandsI 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.

Thea Astley
Ringwood: Viking, 1999
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.


Bill is too modest in his introduction. He has a different perspective on this book which is well worth reading – as is the set of comments that his post engendered. Do check it out (at the link in the intro above).

Have you taken part in Lisa’s Thea Astley week? 

15 thoughts on “Bill curates: Thea Astley, Drylands

  1. It’s a while since I read it but i know I enjoyed it very much – I thought she was using the short story format to form a novel.

  2. IMO you would have to stretch the definition of dystopian to include Astley, but it’s an interesting comment to make because it makes you think about what Astley was trying to portray. I think she was saying Hey all you Sunshine State people, there’s all this other dark shit been going on in sunny Queensland that you guys are ignoring. Certainly not the case with her and Queensland that absence made the heart grow fonder.

    • You know me Bill, I like to be loose with definitions/categorisation. But, you are probably right in that she is envisaging now rather than imagining some other worse world. In that sense it’s not technically dystopian, but I think the word dies help give a sense of what she is saying?

  3. I think she’s certainly making that point Bill – that there is all this violence and misogyny and loneliness and stigma of anyone different going on behind the scenes as it were – that’s what interests her – and I wonder about her relationship with the tropical north – having lived on the far north coast of NSW I know I have a love-hate relationship with that climate and landscape and the people that tend to congregate there – and inland towns can certainly be very insular – she must have been miserable as a a teacher with such a formidable intelligence and being quite non-conformist – and a woman!

    I think it was the writer Jon Doust who said that sometimes the best way to see a place is from another place (and he was wondering why he kept returning to a town he didn’t like)- I think that is what Astey is doing – writing about Queensland from a distance.

  4. I miss having the Lamb book Sue, it’s on order at our library!

    Are you as cold as us down there in the ACT? Lots of snow around here including in town!

      • Minus-3 here before the wind chill factor – and we had a strong wind blowing all day. We are besieged by tourists coming from the city to see snow!

        I hope your father is managing OK Sue. Warmest wishes.

  5. The book sounds very interesting. Pessimistic and dark views of the world can be hard to take, but they can make great literature and I think that they are important. Even if I do not always agree with the author’s worldview. I am glad that these books exits.

    • Yes, me too, Brian. Astley is darker often than I feel, and yet, I also know that in one sense she’s right. There are the lights, otherwise how could we all be surviving, but shining a “light” (ha) on the dark is important, isn’t it?

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