Drylands, Thea Astley

ANZLitLovers Thea Astley Week, 17-25 Aug. 2020


Thea Astley (1925-2004) was one of Australia’s finest and fiercest writers. We can argue at another time whether she belongs in AWW Gen 3 (1919-1960) or Gen 4 (probably the latter). A Queenslander, her concerns were Queensland’s shocking history of Aboriginal oppression and murders, and women’s rights – in this book, the antediluvian attitude of rural Queensland men to their wives.

Astley never actually lived in central Queensland though she seems to know it pretty well. She grew up in Brisabane, lived for a while in the far north, and she surely knows that long train ride up and down the Queensland coast which appears in this and some other of her books.

Drylands, the small dying town hours west of Rockhampton, which is her nominal subject here, is based on Springsure, an hour south of Emerald (which she calls Red Plains). Years ago when I was road training Melbourne – Townsville, I would cross the NSW-Qld border from Bourke and run up through Roma, Injune, Carnarvon Gorge, Rolleston, Springsure, Emerald and on to Charters Towers (map). Good country, heavily treed through the Carnarvon Gorge, but achingly dry as Astley describes it.

I was through there again last year and I’m not sure that Springsure is as small or as near death as the fictional Drylands, but that’s poetic licence. To make sure we know where she’s talking about she mentions the Madonna on the mount (Virgin Rock) – which, like shapes in clouds, is a bit hard to pick out – and the proximity to Carnarvon Gorge.

No more geography. Drylands (1999) was Astley’s last novel and the fourth of her Miles Franklin winners. For the first couple of chapters I thought she was struggling. She starts with the fictional writer writing this work, the go-to cliche of tired postmodernism,

Thinks: I could begin onceupona or manyyearsago or inadistantcountry. It’s been done. I don’t like it. Or a spot of Calvino clutter – no matter how meticulously brilliant – as if some gabmouth has found a defenceless alienist and vacant couch and is determined, the nerd, to fill the poor bastard in on every nuance of landscape, movement, his reactions thereto …

then more or less flings random words at the page before finally settling into some sort of rhythm. The novel proceeds as a series of interconnected stories featuring Janet typing away upstairs from her dying newsagency; not-Franzi Massig, a whistleblower from the south, forced to adopt another man’s name, who squats in a shack by the creek on the land of failing farmer …; Jim Randler who, memories vivid of his one trip to the coast as a boy, decides to build himself a yacht he can live in; Clem and Joss who own the pub, the Legless Lizard, failing despite determined drinkers fed a constant diet of beer and sports; Paddy Locke, the one woman intellectual centre of the town, and sole occupant of the ladies lounge; Benny Shoforth her determinedly peaceful neighbour who has his house resumed by the mayor …; Howie Briceland whose father had taken the opportunity of his wife’s taking the kids for a holiday to rape the 12 year old Aboriginal maid, before packing her off to a reservation where she had and was promptly separated from her baby¬† … Benny. And so it goes round and round.

There are other women who appear for just one chapter and are harassed and assaulted by men. Eve, contracted by the government to take writing classes to women in the bush, attracts a stalker; Ro, one of the four women in the class, whose farmer husband regards getting his own lunch out of the fridge as a threat to his manhood, and belts Ro in front of the other women to make his point; Lannie, saddled with a husband who needs his ‘quiet time’ and six footballer sons, who walks out, gets committed, and quite enjoys the peace; Joss, co-owner of the pub, who gets chased out of town by two men, who pursue her to the coast when she finds work there.

Drylands is a severely dysfunctional and dying town. I’m sure Astley intends it as a microcosm of all that is wrong with rural Queensland (although she fails to mention widespread illegal land clearing and water theft). What I suspect is that it is also a ‘microcosm’ of a bigger book. That she was too ambitious in what, at 70 years of age, she set out to do. And so we are left with an unsatisfactory framing device; characters who flit in and out with very little meat on their bones; a minimal plot – people get old, or tired, or worn down, and leave or die, Queensland men are bastards, the town dies.

Shabbiness defeated her. The shop. The Town. The empty street outside in the brightening late morning. And in addition the meaningless quality of her years. The victory would be in leaving.

Astley is a better writer than this. Perhaps her MF in this year was a consolation for her missing out three years earlier with The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow. I check what else was shortlisted and see that Drylands was in fact equal winner with Kim Scott’s Benang. I am gobsmacked. The MF judges’ capacity for timid decisions knows no bounds.


Thea Astley, Drylands, Penguin, Melbourne, 1999




21 thoughts on “Drylands, Thea Astley

    • Don’t let me put you off reading it, if you come across it, but yes, I think she did better in earlier works and of course Lisa’s week is giving us the chance to read lots of opinions about that.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This is totally anecdotal, but I swear everyone is reading incredibly depressing books right now, books mostly about oppressing women and horrible, dry landscapes the result of climate change — that sort of thing. Even my own book reviews this week focus on a set of novels about a terrifying future America in which it rains about once every six years, people live in dire poverty, and public education no longer exists. I vote we start a book club. I shall choose one terribly smutty novel and all my book blog friends and I will read it together, laugh, and then get back to the serious business of pandemic-ing.

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    • We (bloggers) noticed that a lot of new Australian fiction was heading down the Dystopian path. Probably to do with our realisation at last that we have made serious global warming inevitable. I can’t comment about women’s issues so much but certainly the daily news these days seems to always have stories about women fighting back against discrimination, harassment and domestic violence.
      I’ll be in your club – pick me, pick me! – do you have a smutty novel in mind?


      • Well, Gil just recommended Paradise Cove by Jenny Holiday, which has a hermit described as a “beefy sea god.” I think I’ll make an announcement on Sunday to see if I can rally the troops on this!


      • LOL. I’ve just finished reading Cilka’s Journey (book club) and The Wolf and the Watchman (friend’s recommendation). The first is harrowing, the second gritty. I needed cheering up. So I attacked Paradise Cove. Cheered me up no end. The “smut” was well done. Love the bit where the hero (the beefy sea god) scuttles into the kitchen to do the dishes facing the sink, so the rest of the guests can’t see his state of excitement. Our hero and heroine are “friends with benefits” and the town elders watch from the side with glee. I have a few things to attend to (including “The Timeless Land”), but after that I could easily be persuaded to read another book by Jenny Holiday.


  2. LOL I don’t want to read a smutty novel but when someone commented on mine about depressing books I thought I’d read something cheerful just to please her…
    I just have to find one on my shelves!

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  3. Haha, Bill … I read this on Monday night when you posted this, but it sent me off to the map to look at Springsure as my family and I drove a couple of times from Mt Isa to Brisbane via the inland route but we would have gone west of Springsure … Winton, Longreach and then down to Roma via Barcaldine and Blackall as I recollect.

    I’m sorry you didn’t like this as much as I did – and I think you’re a little tough to say what she didn’t mention! She did focus more on sociopolitical and humanitarian issues I think than environmental ones though the latter of course has sociopolitical/socioeconomic ramifications. I think your description of characters flitting in and out with little meat on their bones is due to the more short-story-like form she used. If you read it that way, you don’t expect deep character development? For me it was quite a mesmerising read – and much sparer as I recollect than the early ones.


    • If you haven’t been up through the Carnarvon Gorge National Park, from Injune to Roleystone then I thoroughly recommend it as a drive worth doing.

      I couldn’t say “all that is wrong with rural Queensland” without mentioning land clearing and water theft. I wasn’t really criticising her for not saying it, I agree Astley was more focussed on social ills. But I could have gone on. How about a systemically racist police force and a succession of supine Labor governments.

      I do expect deep character development. What you see as connected short stories I see as a series of sketches for a much larger novel (I do enjoy a good argument).


      • haha, Bill, I do too as you know. I see things a bit differently – I like nothing better that deep character development where it’s appropriate to the form and the author’s intentions, but I think there is writing that doesn’t require it. Interestingly, I think the more political the work, sometimes the less character development there can be. I think, for example, that satirical or allegorical works “can” have less character development, for example. So, for me, it’s not a case of expectation but of horses for courses, if that makes sense.


  4. I, too, often wonder if awards are given out to the winner over their works based on previous snubs. In the United States, we always joke that the Ocsars are awards given to the losers from previous years — it’s fun to speculate, at least. So many snubs have happened over the course of award giving across time. But it’s hard to know what will withstand the test of time.


    • I try not to follow awards, but it is hard to ignore the Miles Franklin which is Australia’s most prestigious. I get the impression that the judges are always looking over their shoulders, seeking to avoid the mistakes they made the previous year. And they are irredeemably middle of the road – not that I don’t think Astley was a very good writer, but some of the other winners make me weep. I’ve written a post on what I think our best books are and I’ll put it up soon (next week probably).

      Liked by 1 person

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