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Thea Astley: Drylands

Astley’s last novel starts off with a bit of cynicism. It is subtitled A Book for the World’s Last Reader and this will also be the title of the book that Janet Deakin will write. Janet Deakin had been a bookshop manager and then quite late in life, had met Ted, a farmer and had married him. She did not really love him but she felt it was time to get married Sadly, he died after four years. She decided to stay on in Drylands, a small town with a population of two hundred and seventy-four, in the middle of nowhere. She runs the local newsagents. When she started, she brought in some good books, books that she liked, but the locals were not interested, not least because no-one reads any more, except magazines. Indeed, after she married him, she discovered that Ted could not read. She has now decided to write A Book for the World’s Last Reader.

Janet’s cynicism is reflected throughout the novel, which mainly consists of related stories about the various inhabitants of Drylands. People do not read but prefer to watch TV or drink in the bar. (This book was published in 1999 presumably before the Internet had really got going in the outback of Australia.) Men – shock! horror! – like watching sports (presumably Astley does not.) They also treat women badly. Young people are rude. Politicians are corrupt. Most importantly, ordinary people, particularly those lower on the power totem pole, such as aborigines, half-castes, the poor, the unconventional and women, get a raw deal.

We follow the stories of several characters. There is Franzi Massig – not his real name, which we never learn – who had worked for a firm of accountants. He had discovered large-scale corruption. He leaked some of the details to friends who were journalists but when he told his boss, he was told to keep quiet. On returning home, he found his flat had been trashed and a warning message left. He immediately took out all his savings, bought a van and headed for the great unknown. He landed up in Drylands, where he found an abandoned house. This was ideal. Inside, he found details of a family of German origin and about their German cousin called Franzi Massig. He took the name, rented the house from the local farmer who owned it and became a new person. But then he learned someone was looking for him.

We also follow the story of Randler, Massig’s landlord. As a boy, he had been taken to the sea for the first (and last) time as part of a project to get poor children see the sea. While the other children built sandcastles, he wanted to get out on the sea. A man takes him rowing and then teaches him to row. Randler is enthralled. When he gets home, he builds a raft with his father’s help and sails it on the local creek. He hides it nearby but it is discovered and destroyed by vandals. (There are quite a few of examples of vandalism in this book, a further sign of the deterioration of morals.) His father promises to build another one but never finds the time to do so. So when Randler retires and sells his land, he is determined to build a small boat for his own use, which he does, lovingly and with great care. Inevitably, it all goes wrong again.

However, several of the stories are about the ill-treatment of women. There is the poor half-caste woman who is a servant to the richest man in town. While his wife is away, he has sex with her on a regular basis. When she becomes pregnant, he gets rid of her. Her son is sent to an orphanage and we follow his story in his attempt to find out who his parents are. Joss, married to the local bar owner, is continually harassed by two men and her husband cannot seem to help. The government funds a project for a writer to come to the town and teach creative writing. Her four students are all women. The teacher herself is pursued and assaulted by a travelling salesman. Two of the women, in the middle of the class, are summoned to come and help on the farm by their husbands. When they refuse, one of the husbands brutally hits his wife. Another woman who has six sons who are all only interested in football. Her husband says that they cannot help her in the house as that is women’s work.

This is an old person’s novel or, rather, an old woman’s novel, and a very bitter novel. Astley was seventy-four when it was published. Standards have dropped. Young people have no respect for their elders. Men are becoming more macho and show no respect for women. Racism is alive and well. Moreover, living out in the wilds is becoming harder, with extensive drought, though the rich are getting richer, while the poor get poorer. It is not a cheerful book, with little redemption, as many of the characters suffer and cannot escape their fate. Is this what has really happened in Australia? I am not competent to judge but clearly Astley felt very strongly that it was the case.

Publishing history

First published 1999 by Viking