Authors: Thea Astley

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Australian novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Girl with a Monkey, 1958

A Descant for Gossips, 1960

The Well-Dressed Explorer, 1962

The Slow Natives, 1965

A Boat Load of Home Folk, 1968

The Acolyte, 1972

A Kindness Cup, 1974

An Item from the Late News, 1982

Beachmasters, 1985

It’s Raining in Mango, 1987

Reaching Tin River, 1990

Vanishing Points: Two Novellas, 1992 (The Genteel Poverty Bus Company, Inventing the Weather)

Coda, 1994

The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, 1996

Drylands: A Book for the World’s Last Reader, 1999

Short Fiction:

Hunting the Wild Pineapple, 1979

Collected Stories, 1997

Biography

Considered one of Australia’s most original writers, Thea Beatrice May Astley during her long career explored all levels of Australian life, satirized human folly, probed spiritual matters, and experimented with language and form. Set in Astley’s native country and drawn from the life around her, her fiction transcends its parochial origins. Her work has been published and well received in the United States and Great Britain.{$I[AN]9810001987}{$I[A]Astley, Thea}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Astley, Thea}{$I[geo]AUSTRALIA;Astley, Thea}{$I[tim]1925;Astley, Thea}

Astley was brought up in a family of journalists and attended Catholic schools in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland. Showing an early interest and ability in literature and music, she studied arts at the University of Queensland, which in 1988 awarded her an honorary doctorate, one of the numerous awards, literary prizes, and honors that she received.

After college, she taught school for several years in remote parts of vast and largely unsettled Queensland. Her first two novels draw from these experiences. Girl with a Monkey records the last day a teacher spends in a dusty Queensland town, her life during the past few months unfolding through memory as she waits for a train. Schoolteachers also figure in the second novel, A Descant for Gossips, which reveals the destructive nature of a small, insular town. These books establish Astley’s recurrent thematic concerns: loneliness, both physical and spiritual; a “nausea of spirit” (as the condition is defined in Girl with a Monkey); a “personal crucifixion” at the hands of established society (as it is called in A Descant for Gossips); and a longing to reach “the center,” a term Astley uses all through her work and a destination that to her seems reachable only through death.

Astley married a musician in 1948 and moved to Sydney, where her third novel, The Well-Dressed Explorer, is primarily set. The title character is a second-rate journalist whose explorations, including his spiritual and sexual quests, fail pathetically. Here Astley’s Roman Catholic upbringing played a significant role in the fiction for the first time, and it would continue to do so in the later novels even though she called herself a “lapsed Catholic.” In Sydney, Astley taught high school English until 1967, when she joined the faculty of Sydney’s Macquarie University as a lecturer in Australian literature. Combining professional and family responsibilities with writing, she continued to publish regularly. In her next work, The Slow Natives, a story about a teenage boy discovering adult hypocrisy, Astley again employed a Queensland setting. She continued to do so in most of her following fiction, even though cosmopolitan Sydney differed dramatically from provincial Brisbane and the state’s tropical rainforests, unsettled coastline, and vast stretches of barren countryside. A Boat Load of Home Folk takes several Queenslanders, some of them characters introduced in The Slow Natives, to a South Sea island, where they face a hurricane rather than a holiday. Their souls are described as “sore fruit” while they weather the storm, both a literal and spiritual tempest.

Although by 1968 Astley had published five novels, her work had not always been well received by Australian critics, who called her writing style too dense and ornate. They also objected to what they considered to be an overwhelmingly dim view of the human condition. In The Acolyte, possibly Astley’s finest novel, she answers the critics through her depiction of the artist–in this case a musician–trapped in a post-colonial society. The next novel, A Kindness Cup, examines another aspect of colonialism by re-creating a nineteenth century historical event in which settlers in Queensland slaughtered Aborigines by driving them off a cliff.

In 1980, Astley and her husband retired, living first in the rainforest of Northern Queensland, then in 1990, for health reasons, moving near Sydney. Except for Beachmasters, which depicts an actual native rebellion against neo-colonialism on a South Sea island, all the works that follow rely on Queensland as their setting. Astley uses the oddities of rural areas in both the collection of short stories Hunting the Wild Pineapple and the novel that turns into a Christian parable, An Item from the Late News. It’s Raining in Mango unfolds a colorful family history in an imaginary coastal settlement called Reeftown, while Reaching Tin River follows its central character on an extended journey through Queensland in a quest for the elusive “center.” The two novellas of Vanishing Points satirize tourism in Queensland, and Coda examines the despair of old age.

During the early years of their retirement, Astley and her husband traveled extensively in Europe and the United States, where she gave readings and served as a guest lecturer in universities. Astley’s international reputation grew steadily since the 1985 publication of Beachmasters in North America and Great Britain. Her reception in Australia also underwent a marked change–so much so that one critic in 1994 called her “Australia’s most important contemporary novelist.” In 2000, Astley and Kim Scott were named joint winners of the prestigious Miles Franklin Australian literary award, with Astley being recognized for Drylands. This novel, set in a small Queensland town, deals with violence and homelessness in rural Australia. It was the fourth time that Astley had been granted the award, having previously won in 1962 for The Well-Dressed Explorer, in 1965 for The Slow Natives, and in 1972 for The Acolyte.

BibliographyBlake, L. J. Australian Writers. Adelaide, Australia: Rigby, 1968. Offers a profile of Astley.Brown, Susan Windisch, ed. Contemporary Novelists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996. Contains an entry on Astley.Chow, Lesley. “For the Last Reader.” The Times Literary Supplement, January 5, 2001, p. 20. Chow reviews Astley’s Drylands and compares it to Kim Scott’s Benang (1999).Dale, Leigh. “Colonial History and Post-Colonial Fiction: The Writing of Thea Astley.” Australian Literary Studies 19, no. 1 (May 1999): 21. Discusses Astley’s emphasis on the devastation to indigenous people caused by colonialism and the refusal of former colonial powers to acknowledge the effects of that devastation.Goodwin, Ken. “Revolution as Bodily Fiction: Thea Astley and Margaret Atwood.” Antipodes 4 (Winter, 1990). Compares the two writers’ handling of personal estrangement.Lowry, Beverly. “Tough Old Thing.” Review of Coda, by Thea Astley. The New York Times Book Review, October 2, 1994, p. 712. A favorable review.Ross, Robert L. “Mavis Gallant and Thea Astley on Home Truths, Home Folk.” Ariel 19 (Winter, 1988). Discusses how the two writers give their characters only rare and brief glimpses of truth.Ross, Robert L. “Thea Astley’s Long Struggle with the Language of Fiction.” World Literature Today 67 (Summer, 1993). Examines the related matters of Astley’s critical reception and writing style.Willbanks, Ray. Australian Voices: Writers and Their Work. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991. Contains a perceptive interview with Astley.
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