The Fiction of Thea Astley

by Susan Sheridan

Description

This book is in the Cambria Australian Literature Series headed by Susan Lever (University of Sydney).

Thea Astley (1925-2004) was one of the outstanding Australian fiction writers of the 20th 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. Astley felt strong affinities with a number of American writers, especially practitioners of shorter fiction like Hemingway, McCullers and Carver. Her work suggests comparison with that of William Faulkner, for the way it always inhabits the same imagined location. Place, and the parish of people who inhabit a particular place, are Astley’s persistent subjects. Her landscapes, whether the luxuriant coast or the dry inland, become metaphors of the human failings that preoccupy her; and, as she deepened her interest in the history of these locations, Astley imbued her landscapes with a necessary political dimension.

Astley’s fiction challenged the realist tradition that had dominated Australian writing in the first half of the twentieth century. In the postwar literary world where she began to publish she was readily accorded a place among the Australian mid-century modernists like Randolph Stow and Patrick White, who was an admired early mentor.

She was the only woman novelist of her generation to have won early success and published consistently throughout the 1960s and 1970s, when the literary world was heavily male dominated. As a fiction writer she had few female contemporaries until the 1980s, when ‘second wave’ feminism began to have a significant impact. Astley’s choice of focal characters, and the objects of her satire, changed to reflect that impact. Always a writer who avoided solemnity and undercut her characters’ claims to heroism of any kind, she reveled in the new-found capacity to mock male pretension and assert female rebellion.

This study of Astley’s fiction explores her representation of place and power relations, and the innovative work of historicizing place. It also examines how her works reveal her fascination with outsiders, misfits, and failures, as well as her skepticism about heroes. The book also examines how Astley's works delve into decolonization and bring a multilayered postcolonial perspective on colonial race relations. The book takes the reader all the way to the latter part of Astley's writing career, which amply demonstrates her capacity to bring together a critical exploration of patriarchal power relations and a postcolonial perspective on race relations, as well as her satire on the worship of unbridled ‘development’ which dominated Australian economic and social life during this period.



 

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