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The Fiction of Thea Astley By Susan Sheridan

Chapter :  Introduction
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The Fiction of Thea Astley

Introduction

Thea Astley was one of the outstanding Australian fiction writers of the twentieth century. Four of her novels, including her last, Drylands (1999), won the prestigious Miles Franklin prize, and she was awarded numerous literary and civic honors during her lifetime. The distinctive appeal of her work comes from its unique sense of place, in tropical Queensland and the South Pacific, and from the mordant irony of her gaze on Australian society and her fiercely compassionate portrayal of social outsiders. Place and people reflect one another as Astley deals in climatic extremes both geographical and emotional: living ‘on the edge of the cyclone,’ her people face the threat of personal annihilation with the frail weapons of irony, satire, or anarchic humor.

Despite the deeply Australian objects of her satire, Astley’s innovative fictions have attracted critical attention beyond national boundaries, and her later work, especially, struck a chord with readers in North America. Several of her earlier novels were republished in the United States, where she gave readings and spent time as a writer-in-residence several times between 1976 and 1988 (Miner 1992). Astley felt strong affinities with a number of United States writers: as a young writer she especially admired practitioners of shorter fiction like Hemingway, McCullers, and Carver, a taste which was unusual in Australia at that time (Sheridan 2011, 63–4). Critic Kerryn Goldsworthy has suggested, further, that ‘there is something almost Gothic about Astley’s imagination’ that puts her in the company of women writers of the American South like Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty (Goldsworthy 2006, 65). Her affinities with contemporaries elsewhere are yet to be explored, but two interesting connections are