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Thea Astley: Coda

The three parts of the book all start with stories from newspapers about what is apparently called granny dumping. i.e. leaving old people in a public place without any form of identification. Often these people have dementia and cannot even remember their names. The hope is that the public services will take care of them. The opening sentence of the novel proper has Kathleen telling us that she is losing her nouns, by which she means that she cannot remember the names of people or places. She is, she says, unwanted and unwanting. She has two children: Shamrock and Brain (he used to be Brian but his ex-wife nicknamed him Brain and it stuck with the rest of the family). Shamrock has, in Kathleen’s view, acres of space but Shamrock claims that she has not when she really means that she does not want her mother living with her and her husband, the Member of Parliament. Of course, Kathleen has her friend, Daisy. They have been friends for many years and always kept in touch, even when they lived a long way from one another. Daisy finally moved back to Brisbane and that made Kathleen very happy, till one day Daisy was run over and killed by a reversing lorry. This has not stopped Kathleen from regularly talking to Daisy.

After the opening chapter, the first part of the book is about Kathleen’s earlier life. Her first prospect was a merchant seaman who even proposed to her. However, he was drunk. When sober, he withdrew his proposal, not because he did not like Kathleen but because he realised he would not be a suitable husband, not least because he was already married and gay. She then met Ronald, who was about to be demobbed at the end of the war. He came from the Solomon Islands, where his father had a shop that had been badly damaged in the war. His father had opened up a new shop in Townsville, in Northern Queensland, and wanted Ronald to manage it. Ronald did not want to but did not know how to say no to his father. This is when Brian and Shamrock were born. Ronald’s father then summoned Ronald out to Honiara in the Solomon Islands to run the store there but, by the time they had got there, the father had died.

Ronald did not take to running the store and Kathleen did not take to the ladies of the Solomon Islands, who did not like her raucous laugh and her casual ways. Ronald worked less and less and, one day, announced he was off on an expedition to climb Mount Makarakombou to look for the New Jerusalem. He returned three weeks later in a terrible state. Only later do we learn what really happened. The stores are sold and Ronald becomes a paper-shuffler in Brisbane. The couple drift apart, so much so that when Ronald gets cancer, he tells Brian but not Kathleen. He is soon dead and Kathleen is left to bring up the children.

Shamrock is a difficult teenager. She says that she is going to take a year off to find herself after both she and Brian do badly at school. Where will you look, dear? Kathleen wittily asks. The answer is a commune where she really does not find herself. Fortunately, she meets a lawyer, later Member of Parliament, and they marry. Brian seems to have similar luck, meeting and marrying Bosie. Her father had been a successful property developer. He died suddenly and left his fortune to his daughter. Unfortunately, she is very good at spending money and every one of Brian’s schemes to make more money is a flop. They are permanently in debt and the marriage drifts apart. It drifts further apart when Brian meets Nina on a tour in Italy and he goes with her. Though both couples return together, the marriage is not designed to last. Brian runs a restaurant and builds a gigantic, thirty foot high plastic statue of his brother-in-law the M.P.-cum- property developer. Kathleen and Nina think it hilarious. Bosie, Shamrock and the local authorities do not. Nina leaves her husband – he seems to be quite casual about it – and Brian leaves Bosie.

But life is getting difficult for Kathleen. Incontinence is the least of her problems. More than once she has to phone Brian to tell him that she is lost and has no idea where she is. She gets locked in after hours in a gallery, a cemetery and two city stores. She has known for some time that the Department of Main Roads is going to run an expressway through her house but she thought it would never happen but then it does.

Despite her incipient dementia, her incontinence and her not always helpful children, Kathleen manages to keep going. She speaks her mind, to the annoyance of some people, her daughter, in particular. When Shamrock takes her to see a retirement village, the matron asks her what she thinks. It’s fucking awful, she says. She laughs, particularly at the statue of Len, her son-in-law. She gets on with life, carries on, not letting little things, like money, for example, bother her too much. She is aware that dementia is coming but she will keep going as long as she can. What a marvellous day, she cries out, the last sentence of the book.

Publishing history

First published 1994 by William Heinemann