Drylands – Thea Astley

 Review by Gabriel

Drylands by Thea Astley

On the “About” page of this website, I say that I have a reading rotation of an Australian book, an international book and a Japanese book. For regular readers of this blog (all three of you), you might also have noticed that this reading rotation has gone out the window. One of the main reasons for this is that Australian books were so consistently underwhelming that they were kicked off the reading list, and I’m not the kind of person to sacrifice my down time and energy due to some vague sense of nationalism.

Drylands by Thea Astley embodies some of the worst tendencies of Australian literature. Astley writes like a first year creative writing student – she can’t help but indulge in flowery descriptions and uses lots of big words that serve little purpose other than to show off her vocabulary. Her characters are boring, unsympathetic rural Australian cliches, and her dialogue is clunky and unrealistic. Drylands has no plot. In addition to writing like a first year creative writing student, Astley’s world view is about as nuanced as a first year gender studies student, so blatant is the sexism and snobbishness of this novel.

Drylands is a series of short stories based around the titular town, a miserable little place that consists only of a a pub, a newsagent, a grocery store, an unused picture show, a council building, a primary school and a scattering of houses. The stories are all told from the perspectives of outsiders, either literal or figurative, and highlight the narrow mindedness, cultural barrenness and, of course, misogyny of the town, which is emptying, “pouring itself out like water into sand.”

I should have been warned off by the subtitle – “a book for the world’s last reader”. That’s not tongue in cheek, people, it’s pure pretentiousness, and it only gets worse from there. Here are some examples of the some of the worst descriptions I’ve read in a published work:

“Although there was hard sunlight eye-blindingly bright in the dry air, there was a darkness about the town, an ingrown self-sufficiency of secrets.”

Is “eye-blindingly” necessary when “bright” is there? And what exactly is an “ingrown sufficiency of secrets”? Maybe it sounds a bit clever on first reading, but it doesn’t really make sense, and if it does, there’s at least one redundant word. Here’s another example, this time describing the sea:

“…for the first time in his ten years, his eyes were shocked by that moving world of aquamarine whose surface shook in repeated patterns of yeasty invitation.”

Many things are yeasty. Bread. Beer. Yeast infections. The ocean, I’m pretty sure, is not yeasty, and if it were, it wouldn’t be inviting.

Stephen King and Strunk and White warn writers to avoid exclamation points and adverbs. Astley loves them, and proves why they are best left alone. If you’re a masochist, go through this book and imagine it without these two elements. Exclamation points lose nuance and break the flow of the prose. Adverbs make for lazy writing, which can only be discovered once you start avoiding them and have to choose your verbs much more carefully (it’s ironic that I use adverbs, I know, but I believe they’re more acceptable in non-fiction than fiction), or show the character’s intention in the way the sentence is structured or in the atmosphere you create.

Then there’s the dialogue. Shortly after the above passage, in which a young boy sees the ocean for the first time, he lets rip with clunkers that sound like they came from some American telemovie, such as, “What is it? … What’s out there?” and “What’s past that, mister?” He says this despite the fact he has been told that he is going to the seaside on a school field trip, and has seen pictures of the ocean before. Maybe he was confused because the sea was so yeasty that day.

But Astley is at her worst when she is sermonising. During a heated argument, a wife tells her husband:

“I’m sick to death of your telling them that’s women’s work. You make that simple fallacy all men make – you’re physically more powerful, therefore you have total power and because you have total power you assume you are more intelligent! That’s your mistake, jumping from muscles to brains. A mistake or cunning. So you proceed to shove and bully and treat wives like peasants.”

Do I really need to point out why that’s painful?

I’m being harsh, I know. You could probably comb through any book and find descriptions and dialogue that sound terrible out of context. And the above examples are the ones that really jumped out at me. But they are indicative of the novel as a whole.

The thing that makes me angry is that sometimes, Astley sometimes writes good descriptions and captures the Australian vernacular well. You can see Patrick White’s influence in the rhythm of her writing and her use of abstract nouns at the end of sentences (as in “yeasty invitation), but she doesn’t possess his insight and isn’t able to bend the English language as adeptly. It’s as if she received too much praise but not enough criticism, and her editor was too intimidated by all the awards to tell her what they really thought.

Unfortunately, poor writing isn’t Astley’s only sin. Many of the her stories are predictable and contain scenes that were ripped from a bad TV soap. This is mostly because Astley sees only the worst in Australia and it’s people, and so she indulges in obvious, spiteful little caricatures. She’s also extremely sexist.

The town of Drylands is full of misogynistic, alcoholic, ignorant farmers. Most of the men in the novel are portrayed as knuckle-dragging morons who are only a few beers away from beating their wives and committing rape. The women are either oppressed or feminist cliches who bemoan the lack of culture, and come across as snobbish and pretentious. One women leaves her family and six children, but it’s portrayed as emancitpation – because she only had sons.  Of the few men who are shown in a positive light, the only married one is tellingly American.

Yes, there are Australians like the ones portrayed in the book, and there is some truth to her portrayal of the country. But it makes for boring reading and two-dimensional characters if you only focus on the negative aspects of a people and culture.

This is the harshest book review I’ve ever written. Part of what got my blood boiling was that this book won the Miles Frankin award – one of Australian’s highest awards for literature. Drylands is probably not as deserving of the scorn I’ve heaped on it, but it’s definitely not deserving of any award. If this was the best Australia could produce in 2000, don’t give the award to anyone. As long as the Australian cultural establishment continue to go apeshit over second-rate books (and movies and music), we might just be the cultural backwater that people like Astley accuse us of being.


3 Responses to Drylands – Thea Astley

  1. angggel says:

    Waw… that’s not very engaging! I have a blog dedicated to Australian literature in french, and i’m make a list of the most prominent authors of australia… and Thea Astley is in it (recommended by someone). I haven’t read any of her books and now I’m wondering if it’s such a good idea.
    By the way, I really enjoy your way of writing !

  2. I totally disagree with you Gabriel regarding Astley. Her style is over-the-top, I agree. She has admitted it herself and knows it drives some people up the wall. I wouldn’t call it creative writing student at all. It’s just her. All her books are like that. Drylands is probably more restrained than some of the very early ones.
    I would argue that she’s not sexist but that she is criticising sexism. She is negative about much of Australia – that’s true – because she sees the shallowness and small-mindedness that have resulted in our treating “other”, i.e. the less powerful, poorly. She cares about the underdog – indigenous people, women, less educated people, the ageing, etc.
    I agree that you can see Patrick White in her.
    I’d happily read Drylands again. I have read one of her novels twice, and have read and enjoyed several others. I plan to read more. Each to her own, eh?

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