Susan Sheridan, The Fiction of Thea Astley. Cambria, 2016. RRP: $99.99, 186pp. ISBN: 9781604979329
It is surprising to learn that there are so few books devoted to Thea Astley. During a time where the Australian literary scene was ruled by male authors, Astley managed to achieve publication and relative success. Why is it, then, that Astley frequently slips from our collective memory? Has she simply, still, not found her niche in literary criticism? If so, what exactly can her work offer a contemporary audience? Susan Sheridan’s The Fiction of Thea Astley urges us to not only reconsider Astley as one of the more important fiction writers of the twentieth century, but to also consider her in ways we may have failed to before.
The Fiction of Thea Astley moves progressively through Astley’s novels and short fiction. Along the way, Sheridan maintains an appreciation for all that Astley has been previously recognised for—her ornate style (that Helen Garner once claimed ‘drove her berserk’), her prickly satire, and distinctive sense of place, while generating new interest for Astley. Sheridan’s recurring focal point won’t surprise readers already familiar with her academic background. A founding member of Australian Feminist Studies and co-editor of Thea Astley’s Fictional Worlds (the very first collection of criticism published on Astley, in 2006), Sheridan makes it impossible to dismiss what Astley’s work can offer to a present-day feminist readership.
It is always difficult to separate an author’s personal background from their work, and especially multifarious when it comes to female fiction writers like Astley. This is a woman who (as late as 1990) said that she thought feminism had become ‘a perverted term, rather than a description of natural justice’ (Lamb, 2015), a sentiment that sounds quite similar to that categorically unfeminist (by Third-Wave standards) catchcry: ‘I’m not a feminist, I believe in equality.’ Sheridan contrasts Astley’s reluctance to explicitly ‘identify’ as a feminist with a meticulously researched argument for Astley’s contribution to the movement. Readers of The Fiction Of Thea Astley benefit from rich insight into the not-always-plain frustrations of a female writer who was, truly, a matter of the weather—her own personal environment, and what was erupting around her as she wrote.
Astley was concerned with all social injustice—and seemingly developed her infamous piercing social criticism in order to make her views on various issues clear. Sheridan points to examples like A Kindness Cup (1974), A Boat Load of Home Folk (1968) and Beachmasters (1985), wherein Astley focused on postcolonial race relations, and reminds us that Astley ‘was, indeed, one of the first Australian novelists to take a critical, demystifying look at the violent colonial past’ (73). Astley incessantly sided with marginalised groups, and rendered their oppressors ridiculous via satire and irony. Violent, egocentric, and pretentious male (and female) characters regularly found themselves under her carefully controlled fire. Sheridan’s analyses of Astley’s earliest fiction establish that it took the writer a while to hit her stride, style-wise. In Girl with a Monkey (1958), characters like Leo Varga and Iris Leverson ‘are sometimes treated with such fierce scorn that Astley loses control of her narrative tone’ (29). But Astley quickly learned to challenge patriarchal power structures with far more finesse—and the inevitable complexity of a female author who resisted the label of ‘feminist’ long after Second-Wave feminism had well and truly made an impact on the Australian cultural landscape.
With her novels Coda (1994), Reaching Tin River (1990) and Vanishing Points (1992), Astley made a departure from her ‘earlier practice of focussing on male protagonists even when she has a female narrator’ (112) and entered a new phase where she was finally taking active interest in women as their own subset, as opposed to being flawed ‘equals’ to their male counterparts. In other words, she ceased to ‘write as a male’ (something Astley considered necessary in order to contend with patriarchal literary attitudes of the 1950s and 1960s). Women in Astley’s later novels are imperfect as they ever were, but Astley never strove for overarching feminine superiority. What became important to her from here on out was ‘their desire for revenge on those who would abuse or exploit them—and the anarchic humour with which it is expressed.’ (113)
The Fiction of Thea Astley makes a strong case for an ongoing appreciation of Astley’s work. Rather than attempting to ‘solve’ Astley, Sheridan’s views on Astley’s feminism are consistently placed within necessary historical socio-political context. Sheridan’s expertly guided critique of the tension between Astley’s manifest feminist values and her conservatism will encourage both general and specialised readers to take Astley off the shelf and sift again through her landscapes for gems they may have missed the first time.
Lamb, Karen. Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2015. Print.
Alyce Wilson is a freelance writer, intermittent spoken word performer, and feminist event promoter from Perth, Australia. She tweets @loyalwinces.