It turns out that I’ve actually read Thea Astley before, though I have absolutely no memory of doing so. I’m confused as to why Astley is not a name everyone in Australia knows – by any standard, she is, if nothing else, the woman who’s won the Miles Franklin Award four times. The only other person who’s done that is Tim Winton, and everyone knows who he is. Maybe Astley’s books just don’t stand up after all these years?
This is the story of the Laffey family, who have made their home in Queensland – from the original patriarch, Cornelius, a man who drags his family halfway across a continent; to his daughter, Nadine, who is swept out to sea in a whorehouse; to Will, his grandson, who goes to war, and never fully recovers. Their lives move with the movement of Australian history, and we see the twentieth century through a rather unique lens.
If you’re in any way familiar with Australian literature, there’s a lot in here that’s probably very familiar. There are character tropes that people still use today – the man just returned from the First World War (Courtenay); the hippy pot smokers (Winton); the downtrodden Aboriginal tribes trying to make it in a white world (Grenville). At the same time, though, Astley does them so well, and with such conviction, they seem new and fresh.
In particular, Astley gives some time to her female characters, and really tries to flesh them out. And this isn’t some kind of feminist rewriting of history, or even an attempt to portray women as the be all and end all – because none of them ever really win out – but there are some lines that made me smile. There’s a particularly funny priest that appears about halfway through the novel who is terrified of this woman who simply refuses to take any shit from him. It’s really nicely done.
The biggest problem I have with most big family epics is that they tend to come in door-stopper sized volumes that make you want to kill yourself just by looking at them. Astley neatly sidesteps this problem by essentially writing 14 linked short stories, almost all of them focusing on a different family member, throughout about a hundred years of history. I’m a sucker for this kind of novel, and Astley used the technique to great effect here. Each one has a different flavour to it, though it is clear there is a through line going through the entire work. Some go through a great deal, while others focus on one small event, but all are perfectly formed.
I also like that this isn’t set in Sydney or Melbourne. Or even New South Wales or Victoria. This is definitely a Queenslander novel – more specifically, a North Queensland Novel. And yes, those are supposed to be capitals. Right from the beginning, when Cornelius uproots his family from cosy Sydney, up to the wilderness that is northern Queensland, you feel like you are in the last wild place in Australia. Of particular interest is the Wet – the monsoon season that rips through that part of the world each and every year, and shapes the lives of these characters. You only have to look at what happened earlier in the year in the same part of the country to realise that this isn’t some kind of fictional symbol – this is really what happens in North Queensland. Kudos also to playing up to the idea that everyone in Queensland is a pot smoking layabout by making the ostensible villains of the novel those kinds of people.
The only vaguely weak link in the novel is that only one chapter is dedicated to the Aboriginal family. There are some actually touching scenes with the Aboriginal characters in the novel – in particular, the stolen generations moment that is undercut very nicely by the realisation that, even when we try to help, white people just don’t get it – and I would have liked to have seen more of it. Of course, though, maybe that’s the point Astley is trying to make.
I’m genuinely surprised this novel isn’t on every school reading list in Australia. Or, at the very least, uni courses. If you want to find a stereotypical “Australian novel” of the 20th century, I don’t think you could find a better one than this. Dealing with themes that people are still talking about in 2011 Austalian literature, Astley gives us a novel of great depth and understanding, with a grounded sense of place, and of human interaction.
Oh, and can anyone tell me how her first name is pronounced?