Reaching Tin River, Thea Astley

AusReading Month 2021

Apparently I have read this before. Inside the back cover there’s a boarding pass Melbourne-Adelaide with my name on it and the date 03Jul16. Why the hell was I flying from Melbourne to Adelaide? And on the back of the pass there are notes, extracts and page no.s. Having got so close, I wish I’d gone on to write it up.

Checks back through blog… My posts for that week are Benang and Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence. My work diary is a little more informative. I’d been staying with mum. On Sat Jul 2 I swam 3km in the morning and had dinner with mum and B3 that evening (for B3’s upcoming 60th). Sun 3 is blank. Mon 4, Fly home. Go with Milly to see Psyche belly dancing. I give in, I must have flown home Sun night/Mon morning with a connection through Adel.

Reading now, bits are familiar, but not the overall story.

In the Comments after West Block – my ACT read for this month, as this is QLD – I finally began to get my head around the fact that AWW Gen 4 Week is coming up fast and I have given very little thought to the underlying theory. I said then that I thought Sara Dowse’s writing was based on/was an advance on the Modernism of, say, Eleanor Dark and that this would likely prove typical of Gen 4.

Reaching Tin River (1990) is a late Astley, written at the end of the Gen 4 period (1960-1990), so that the author has had the whole period, one in which Postmodernism was increasing in importance and influence, to develop her writing. It shows.

Astley’s earlier novels reflected most the Postcolonial aspect of Postmodernism, dealing with the legacy of white oppression of the Indigenous inhabitants of particularly her home state, Queensland. There are aspects of that here, but muted. The protagonist, Belle, grows up in and subsequently takes us on a journey through central Queensland. In that context she mentions the Hornet Bank Massacre* a number of times without taking it much further.

The novel is an exploration of Belle’s progress from childhood to her thirties, told in simple, almost diaryish style, in the first person. There are subsidiary themes running through – the unsatisfactoryness of marriage (for women); music, and in particular her dislike of the piano practice piece The Rustle of Spring; and Euclid’s rules of geometry – I get frustrated when arty people misuse maths, especially chaos theory, the uncertainty principle, and Schrödinger’s cat – Belle uses Euclid’s rules as similes for her attempts to locate her ‘centre’.

I am looking for a one-storey town
with trees
and a population of under two thousand
one of whom must be called Gaden Lockyer

Mother was a drummer in her own all-women group, a throbber of a lady with midlife zest and an off-centre smile

I have decided to make a list of all the convent girls who learnt to play ‘The Rustle of Spring’ by Christian Sinding between 1945 and 1960.

This is how the book begins, in fact it’s nearly the whole of the first page. I think I’m in for Astley in experimental mode, but she soon settles down. The plot is straightforward. Belle and her mother, Bonnie live on Bonnie’s parents’ farm ‘Perjury Plains’ near the (fictional) towns of Drenchings and Jericho Flats. Belle’s absent father, for whom she later goes looking, is a mediocre trumpet player and and US serviceman from the Korean War.

Belle on a school excursion learns of and subsequently becomes infatuated with turn of the century farmer politician Gaden Lockyer (ie. someone who is long dead).

She becomes first a teacher, then a librarian. Inexperienced sexually, she marries an older workmate given to mansplaining and is soon disillusioned.

Finally, she sets out on a road trip to discover Gaden Lockyer, to put herself in places where he has been and this crosses over (fairly successfully) into Magic Realism as he, Lockyer, becomes aware that a ghost from the future is haunting him.

There’s lots of other stuff and other characters. Bonnie, who was never an attentive mother, becomes more hippyish as she gets older. We learn pretty quickly to dislike Sebastian, the mansplaining husband. Belle’s father and Bonnie are never divorced but stay in remote contact on opposite sides of the world. We get to stay in some pretty shabby boarding houses – in fact I’m not sure Belle and I don’t walk to work together in the early 1970s when we both lived in New Farm boarding houses and walked across the Valley to the Courier Mail building – and end up in one that was once the nursing home where Lockyer saw out his final years.

An enjoyable book. Yet another Astley swipe at provincial Queensland (ie. all of it). And an interesting text for the influence of Postmodernism on Australian writing.


Thea Astley, Reaching Tin River, Minerva, Melbourne, 1990. 222pp (cover painting by Faye Maxwell)

All our Thea Astley reviews are listed on Lisa/ANZLL’s Thea Astley page (here)

*Hornet Bank Massacre: In October 1857 Rosa Praed was at a corroboree which presaged the massacre of seven members of the Fraser family, and one Black worker, on neighbouring Hornet Bank Station (map), in retaliation for the usual ‘dispersal’ of the traditional inhabitants and misuse of their women. Following the massacre, posses of white settlers, in which Murray-Prior [Praed’s father] was prominent, virtually wiped out all the local Yiman people.

Oldest son, William Fraser who had been away at the time of the massacre, returned and began murdering Black people – without hindrance from the police – at every opportunity, including two men exiting Rockhampton courthouse where they had just been acquitted. Astonishingly, Fraser is the model for Colin McKeith, the hero of [Praed’s Lady Bridget in the Never Never Land] – extract from my review.

Hornet Bank is in the vicinity of Taroom, Qld about 470 km north-west of Brisbane (good cattle grazing country, though now subject to extensive fracking)

A recap of the Massacre story in The Queenslander, 15 Sep 1906 (here)

23 thoughts on “Reaching Tin River, Thea Astley

  1. Funny Bill, because I have read this too, and remember very little about it – though admittedly way before you. In fact I’ve just found references to reading it in 1991.

    I was living in the USA and I wrote about it to various friends. To one I said “It is an entertaining, if that is the correct word, account of a woman’s search to find her ‘center’. And whilst she doesn’t exactly do that she does have some sort of catharsis by the end.” Entertaining? Would I use that word now?

    To another I said: “Thea Astley has been writing for so long now and, whilst there is familiarity about her work, she continues to come up with amazing images. Sometimes they don’t seem to quite work but you can never accuse her of being tired”.

    I would really be happy to re-read all of the Astley’s I’ve read but, then, there are those I haven’t read!

    Don’t you love Astley’s titles?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think Belle has a breakdown at the end, though you could say she’s breaking down all the way through the book.
      Entertaining? Probably, it’s certainly not a heavy tale. It would be interesting to argue what Astley’s purpose was. Is Queensland just the setting, or is she trying to say something about it? It’s definitely in the tradition of Australian women’s anti-marriage fiction (I’ll give it an Independent Woman tag right now), but I don’t think that’s its main theme. Perhaps she wanted to explore obsession.

      Astley, Jolley, Garner, how are you going to choose for AWW Gen 4 Week?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know, I know … I have TBR books for all of those but I was *thinking* Astley .. but I also have others on my TBR, including Margaret Barbalet’s Blood in the rain that I’ve really wanted to read because she was part of the Canberra 7.

        Do you have Amy Witting’s The visit, 1977, in the list? Can’t recollect. Her next novel, though, is 1990.

        I really would love to read Tin River again.


      • Re Witting. The Annals included her but with no N for Novel after The Visit and I missed it. She’s in now. I’ll make the Week the third week in Jan and then you’ll have time to do two.


      • I love this idea that there is a genre of anti-marriage fiction. The part in your review where you write, “the unsatisfactoryness of marriage (for women)” stuck with me. Biscuit and I just finished Seraph on the Suwanee by Zora Neale Hurston, and while the beginning of the relationship is violent, by the time you reach the end you’re hoping for a happily ever after. How did she do that? Am I a victim of the happily ever after and Hurston is pointing it out? Biscuit and I read such that we could join the Zora Neale Hurston book club, and the special guest leading the group talked about how Hurston often says something by doing the opposite. I guess before I read Seraph, I saw marriages as violent, convenient, or romantic. Hurston is doing something totally different, and now I’m curious about how Astley may be doing something more obvious in her works that I should check out.


      • My whole masters thesis is on the history of Australian women writers writing about “the unsatisfactoryness of marriage for women”. I only wish I could get recognition for what a strong trend it was, right from the 1850s. The sexual revolution of the 1960s changed the terms of the argument, though women have gone on accepting the trap of traditional marriage with the concomitant domestic violence – psychological and physical.
        The theme flows along, mostly underground now, in Australian writing, surfacing as here, from time to time, without acknowledging its history, which is felt but not studied nor understood.


  2. How did you cope with this being set near fictional towns? 🤣

    I find Astley and, to some extent, Jolley difficult writers to like. Your review hasn’t sold this one to me. I hear the term “magic realism” and the red flag goes up!

    Is Elizabeth Harrower Gen 4?


    • I enjoyed Astley’s Descant for Gossips in that I could relate to the mean-spirited gossip and the terrible way that country towns often deal with anyone who is different. I’ve live most of my life in small country towns and it still happens. But, like Kim I found her a difficult write to gel with. It was like being stuck with a cranky old aunt at a family gathering, where you can’t wait to get away!
      I tend to feel the same about the Jolley’s I’ve attempted too. Although she is more like the conniving old aunt I wouldn’t trust with the children!

      And I want to check on Shirley Hazzard – where does she fall in the Gen’s?


      • The AWW Gen 4 Page contains a complete list of Oz women writers who first published in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. They are ordered by year of first publication and S.Hazzard comes in in 1966.

        I have written an AusReading wrap/AWW Gen 4 post for the end of Nov.

        I love Astley and Jolley. I think their writing, especially Jolley’s is sublime. They are both witty, intelligent and caring women – should I stop and say IMO? No, they really are – with lots of odd or oddly acting characters who really make you think.


  3. It’s a fair question Kim but she gives so much other info that it’s pretty easy to locate them in a general sense, around Taroom.

    I’m sorry I haven’t persuaded you to read it. Because MR was so much in the air then, Astley probably just wanted to try it out, but it’s not intrusive.

    Sue (WG) and I conferred last year and decided Harrower fitted better into Gen 3

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love how you feel like you walked the same roads and stayed in the same places as the character. I’ve felt like that with a couple of local books recently, where I or friends of friends could have been in the background in a scene.


    • I know all the country of this book reasonably well, from having driven backwards and forwards through it, and in fact I have cousins farming near Taroom, but that bit about the Valley and New Farm (the next two suburbs downriver from Brisbane CBD) just felt close to home,
      I’m trying to work out why I like it. I think we all like to see ourselves in print or on film, and seeing our home territory portrayed accurately might be part of that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That sounds plausible, and also I love seeing Birmingham and other places I know in TV shows and on film so that’s something, too. Seeing your places through other eyes, also, maybe?

        Liked by 1 person

  5. What a curious style. I’m not sure if it would read very quickly for me, or very UNquickly.

    And you can’t remember taking that flight?! You must have done a lot more travelling than I have. Oh, duh, well, of course you have. At least you packed yourself a good book…


    • The writing’s pretty straightforward after the first page, you’d get along with it fine. I’d be interested though to know what international writers Astley was reading which led her to experiment with her style. She comes out of it pretty well, especially compared with say Carey and Keneally who appeared to adopt postmodernism by rote, without ever understanding what they were doing or why.

      I only ever fly Perth Melbourne and that less than once a year. It took me a moment to work out why I’d be flying to Adelaide. I never go anywhere without a book, not even Milly’s, though she tells me off if I even glance at the cover.


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