Thea Astley Biography
Thea Astley comments:
Nationality: Australian. Born: Thea Beatrice May Astley in Brisbane, Queensland, 1925. Education: The University of Queensland, Brisbane, 1943-47, B.A. 1947. Career: English teacher in Queensland, 1944-48, and in New South Wales, 1948-67; senior tutor, then fellow in English, Macquarie University, Sydney, 1968-85. Lives near Sydney. Awards: Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship, 1961, 1964; Miles Franklin award, 1963, 1966, 1973; Moomba award, 1965; Age Book of the Year award, 1975; Patrick White award, 1989; Age Book of the Year award, 1996. Agent: Elise Goodman, Goodman Associates, 500 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10024, U.S.A.
Girl with a Monkey. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1958; New York, Penguin, 1987.
A Descant for Gossips. Sydney and London, Angus and Robertson, 1960.
The Well-Dressed Explorer. Sydney and London, Angus and Robertson, 1962; New York, Penguin, 1988.
The Slow Natives. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1965; London, Angus and Robertson, 1966; New York, Evans, 1967.
A Boat Load of Home Folk. Sydney and London, Angus and Robertson, 1968; New York, Penguin, 1983.
The Acolyte. Sydney and London, Angus and Robertson, 1972; inTwo by Astley, New York, Putnam, 1988.
A Kindness Cup. Melbourne, Nelson, 1974; in Two by Astley, NewYork, Putnam, 1988.
An Item from the Late News. St. Lucia, University of QueenslandPress, 1982; New York, Penguin, 1984.
Beachmasters. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1985; New York, Viking, 1986.
It's Raining in Mango: Pictures from a Family Album. New York, Putnam, 1987; London, Viking, 1988.
Two by Astley [includes A Kindness Cup ]. New York, Putnam, 1988.
Reaching Tin River. New York, Putnam, 1990.
Coda. New York, Putnam, 1994; London, Secker and Warburg, 1995.
The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow. New York, Viking, 1996.
Drylands: A Book for the World's Last Reader. Ringwood, Victoria, Australia, Viking, 1999.
Hunting the Wild Pineapple. Melbourne, Nelson, 1979; New York, Putnam, 1991.
Vanishing Points. New York, Putnam, 1992; London, Minerva, 1995.
Collected Stories. St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia, University of
Queensland Press, 1997.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Cubby," in Coast to Coast. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1961.
"The Scenery Never Changes," in Coast to Coast. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1963.
"Journey to Olympus," in Coast to Coast. Sydney, Angus andRobertson, 1965.
"Seeing Mrs. Landers," in Festival and Other Stories, edited byBrian Buckley and Jim Hamilton. Melbourne, Wren, 1974; Newton Abbot, Devon, David and Charles, 1975.
Contributor, Amnesty, edited by Dee Mitchell. Port Melbourne, Victoria, Minerva, 1993.
Editor, Coast to Coast 1969-1970. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1971.
(1972) My main interest (and has been through my five published and current unpublished novels) is the misfit. Not the spectacular outsider, but the seedy little non-grandiose non-fitter who lives in his own mini-hell. Years ago I was impressed at eighteen or so by Diary of a Nobody, delighted by the quality Grossmith gave to the non-achiever and the sympathy which he dealt out. My five published novels have always been, despite the failure of reviewers to see it, a plea for charity—in the Pauline sense, of course—to be accorded to those not ruthless enough or grand enough to be gigantic tragic figures, but which, in their own way, record the same via crucis.
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Thea Astley is one of the most widely respected novelists in Australia, despite the fact that she has never received the kind of sustained critical attention that has been given to some of the country's newer female writers. Born in Queensland into a Catholic family, she long ago abandoned the Church but freely acknowledges its influence. Her language is rich in religious terminology and metaphor, yet she tends mostly to see religious life itself as containing tensions that lie immediately beneath its surface and eventually erupt in destructive forms. Politically to the left, her writing is nevertheless marked by formal, cultural, and, in many respects, ethical conservatism. She is also one of Australia's wittiest and shrewdest novelists, and she plots carefully for dramatic effect and exciting finales.
Astley's first three novels are apprentice works, though they contain the seeds of many of her later ideas, but with The Slow Natives, which won for her the first of a record four Miles Franklin awards, she established her reputation. In this novel the author chooses not to follow the fate of one or two particular characters, as she did in her early work, but to move freely among a group, switching attention omnisciently from one to another. Almost all the characters suffer from some form of spiritual aridity; in Astley's vision, there often seems nothing between repression, and empty or even corrupt sexuality. At times the novel sounds uncannily like Graham Greene in tone: "we carry our own hells within," a priest tells another character, and a moment later he uses the exact term from Greene: "They'll think I'm a whisky priest."
A Boat Load of Home Folk takes up several of the same themes but looks back also to the early A Descant for Gossips in its concentration on the torments of adolescence. It is peopled by as sorry and defeated a lot as the previous novel and in fact, several of the peripheral characters reappear and play a more central role. Again, sexual repression, but more generally an inability to love, lies at the heart of the problem with most of the characters. As Father Lake puts it, "God save me, God save me … from a lack of love." The novel is also noteworthy for a magnificently climactic cyclone as well as for the blossoming of a comic talent which had been present earlier but here achieves an anarchic, even surreal quality.
The Acolyte is Astley's own favorite among her novels. Like several other Australian novels—Patrick White's The Vivisector, for example—it takes up the notion of the artist as a destroyer of human lives, feeding off the flesh of lesser mortals in the service of his sacred art. Unlike White, however, Astley is interested less in the artist figure himself than in the mortals who are helplessly attracted to him and allow themselves to become his sacrificial victims.
A Kindness Cup and An Item from the Late News are both violent and angry novels. The former is based on an incident that took place at The Leap, Queensland, in the second half of the nineteenth century when a group of blacks were massacred. The small town of The Taws is celebrating the progress it has made over the last two decades and has invited former citizens back for a week of reunion. The question, which is eventually answered in the negative, is whether the town can finally acknowledge the injustices it perpetrated in the past. An Item from the Late News deals once again with a person who has returned to the town years after a series of tragic events in order to expunge her guilt. As in A Kindness Cup the strong characters are evil bullies, while the others exhibit at most a kind of weak tolerance. The novel takes place against the ironical background of Christmas, just as A Kindness Cup uses the New Year.
Coming in between these two grimmest of her novels, Hunting the Wild Pineapple is a wonderfully funny, anarchic collection of stories, as if the author feels she can let her hair down in the shorter, more open form of the story in contrast to her meticulously plotted novels. Astley has in fact written quite a lot of short fiction as the publication of her Collected Stories in 1997 revealed. Most of the stories are related by Keith Leverson, whom we left as a young boy at the end of The Slow Natives in hospital with his leg amputated. Now middle-aged, Leverson is "a monopod self-pitier" but also a man who has become accustomed to observing others rather than living himself and his perceptions are shrewd, sardonic, witty. Mostly, the observation is of "this second-rate Eden," Astley's familiar northern Queensland, the area "north of twenty and one hundred and forty-six," and of the drop-outs and hippies who inhabit it. In contrast to the sympathetic way she had treated tortured adolescents in earlier novels, Astley through Leverson views these young people with a sort of benign contempt.
Beachmasters breaks new ground in that it is set outside Australia and is quite overtly political. A group of natives on the Pacific island of Kristi, somewhere near to the north of Australia, stage a brief-lived revolt against the English and French powers which govern it. Their bizarre rebellion is described in a quite Conradian way, in terms that are both absurdly farcical on the one hand and profoundly sad on the other. For all the comic elements in the rebellion, Astley's treatment is full of outrage. The sub-title of her eleventh book of fiction, "Pictures from the Family Album," is revealing as to how the novel works. It's Raining in Mango comes complete with a brief family tree and in fourteen episodes takes the history of the Laffey family from the time of the arrival of Cornelius and his wife up to roughly the present and the fourth generation. Ironically juxtaposed against their loosely structured history is that of a line of blacks—"Bidiggi" (known later as Bidgi the Mumbler) born in the 1860s, father of Jackie Mumbler, grandfather of Charley Mumbler and great-grandfather of Billy Mumbler.
Although the social concerns that inform all of Astley's work are present in Reaching Tin River they are more muted. The novel deals more directly with the relations between the sexes and is an unusually personal work, the pain internalized rather than directed outwards in the form of moral outrage. It is the story of the quest by Belle for her mother, and perhaps ultimately for herself. Reaching Tin River is an oddly moving novel. If there is a limitation to Astley's writing, it takes the form of a lack of emotional range. She is moved to anger far more often than anything deeper. This novel is quite desolate in parts, as well as being extremely funny in others. There is a wonderful evocation of Astley's favorite hunting ground of northern Queensland and its small towns with their absurd names.
Vanishing Points consists of two novellas which implicitly comment on one another. As the title suggests, they are linked by the protagonists' search for a means of escape and retreat from the world as a way of rediscovering meaning in it for themselves. The epigraph to each of the three sections of Astley's short novel Coda concerns itself with newspaper reports of old people being abandoned and left to fend for themselves by their children—granny dumping. In the course of the novella we learn about the life of Kathleen Hackendorf, her marriage, her friend Daisy who is now dead but whom she still sees and speaks to everywhere, and finally the treachery of her daughter and her politician husband. In Astley's later works the female characters rebel and stand up for themselves more and more, as if they have finally worked out that life has been dealing them a bum hand. Kathleen is never more attractive than when she is being rude to people who patronize her.
Like A Kindness Cup, The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow is based on a specific historical incident and again it is filled with a sense of outrage at the unjust treatment meted out to black people in Australia. Structurally complex, ranging widely in time and character, the novel takes the same despairing view of black-white relations in Australia as It's Raining in Mango, suggesting the cyclic and repetitive nature of the violence which befalls Aboriginal people, even though some characters such as a Catholic priest attempt to make a stand. Associated with the theme of endemic racism is Astley's increasingly overt preoccupation with feminism, though feminist issues have always been present in some form or other in her novels.
Drylands confirms the direction in which most of Astley's recent work has been going. Its eloquent subtitle is "a book for the world's last reader" and in its account of three generations Astley is able to pour all her dislike of what she believes contemporary Australia and especially contemporary Australian males have become. She deplores her society's racism, its sexism, the decline of country towns and country values, its lack of interest in culture, the illiteracy of its youth and especially their preference for loud, mindless rock over classical music. None of these concerns is new in her work but never has she written so stridently and despairingly, if with ferocious energy, about them. Despite her increasing pessimism, however, Astley's later writing has lost none of its wit, sharp-eyed observation, and relish in the absurdities of egotism. Her body of work is unmatched by that of any contemporary Australian novelist except perhaps Thomas Keneally.