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Thea Astley: Beachmasters

This novel moves away from Australia, to a fictitious Pacific island called Kristi. While the island is fictitious, it is clearly based on what was then the New Hebrides but was soon to become what we know now as Vanuatu. We also know very well from the beginning what is going to happen, as the novel starts with Tommy Narota in prison for seven years for rebellion. We are then told about various photos in the press and elsewhere, showing Tommy with his ragtag army and riding down the street as self-proclaimed president. Tommy is presumably based on Jimmy Stevens. Kristi, like the New Hebrides, is a condominium with power shared between the British and the French.

The book follows the rise of Tommy and his ill-fated rebellion. We learn early on that his father, a white man who had an appetite for sun and women, liquor and the sea, had many wives and many children, who were all what the Polynesians call hapkas and we call half-castes. He was not a good father. Tommy soon learns to fend for himself. He is helped, in World War II, when the US forces use the island as a base. He and some friends are very good at helping themselves to US goods and selling them on the black market. However, when the war is over, to his horror, they destroy everything they cannot carry. Tommy works at a variety of jobs, starting as a caretaker for the local priest. When he gets a job clearing land for a planter, he uses the bulldozer to clear some land in the jungle, which he uses for his own house.

We follow others who share Tommy’s aspirations. There is Gavi, a fourteen-year old brought up by his mother and his grandfather (his father was killed in Vietnam) who has gradually become aware that not only is he, in fact, a half-caste (to both his surprise and horror) but that his parentage is far more complicated than even he could possibly have imagined. Bonser is a white Australian but he favours independence and recognises the necessary brutality of colonialism. He recruits Gavi and Gavi helps him run guns for Tommy.

Astley clearly has a certain sympathy for these people who not surprisingly feel detached from the colonial powers, whose governments are twelve thousand miles away. In particular, she mocks Cordingley, the British resident, a man whose diplomatic career has gone nowhere, who is an alcoholic and whose wife perennially puts him down. When the rebellion starts it is Cordingley who is the first to run, abandoning his compatriots and his responsibilities and pleading with a local boat owner to ferry him to safety.

The rebellion is something of a farce. The rebels knock on doors the day before, warning people of the events next day and advising them to stay in. Their rebellion is not too violent, limited, with one exception, to destroying property. They smash up the school, while showing respect to the headmaster, who has taught them all when they were younger. (One wisely says to him You learn us too much. And not enough) They smash up the doctor’s surgery and destroy his drugs. They take his wife’s groceries when she goes shopping but do not hurt her. (The doctor later says This will never be my country.) They block roads and start the occasional fire but do not forget to break for lunch.

Astley has had a go at the English resident but she is not averse at having a go at the French colonists. Indeed, the French see the rebellion, which takes place on a British island, as a way of getting rid of the British. The plot backfires. But the rebellion soon ends and when troops finally arrive, they are greeted not only by the islanders on both sides but also by Tommy Narota.

I found this novel bitty and somewhat lacking in focus. Astley certainly intends to damn colonialism and does do that, mocking both the French and British colonisers and showing how they exploit the native population. The headmaster comments We’ve brought them cars and guns and fast food and ill health and shoddy consumer goods and poverty. Our sort of poverty. However, the plot jumps around a bit. For some time, the focus is on Gavi and, at the end, we are presumably meant to share his guilt because there has been one death during the rebellion, a white man shot, though we do not know by whom or why, and he feels guilty because he helps run guns. But this is just one part of the rebellion. Tommy is to the fore at the beginning of the book but, during the rebellion, he is not mentioned much. Other characters drift in and out. However, as a condemnation of British and French colonialism in the New Hebrides/Vanuatu, this novel is certainly not without interest.

Publishing history

First published 1985 by Viking