Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 294 pages; 1999.
Drylands is Thea Astley at her fine, angry best. This novel, which turned out to be her last (she died in 2004, aged 78), earned her the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2000, a prize she shared with joint winner Kim Scott for his novel Benang: From the Heart.
Astley, it has to be said, is not always an easy writer to read. Her prose is dense and rich in metaphors and her ideas are astute and political, the product of an inquiring and intelligent mind.
But this book, which is set in a small Australian town succumbing slowly to the drought, resonated with me, perhaps because I identified with the themes presented here: of small town loneliness and alienation; of kicking back against a culture too obsessed with sport and too inward looking and parochial to care about the importance of reading and language.
It is subtitled “a book for the world’s last reader” which suggests that it might have a literary slant to it, but even readers — and, in particular, book groups and book festivals — get a (slight) drubbing in this coolly intellectual novel.
A novel made up of stories
The structure of Drylands is unusual. It almost reads like a collection of short stories as we follow the trials and tribulations of a complex cast of well-drawn, intensely human characters living in the “God-forgotten tree-stump of a town halfway to nowhere”. They include a foreign accountant on the run, the farmer who sells his property in pursuit of a dream, an indigenous man who lives in a broken down shack on the outskirts of town, a writing teacher who bemoans the “humdrummery” of small town life, the publican’s wife who hates sport and a stressed out house wife with six sons who leaves her family in pursuit of a new life.
Their individual tales are recounted by Janet Deakin, who fancies herself as a writer: she spends her days running a newsagency that in another (more literary) place would be a bookstore, and her nights chronicling in her journal the decline of the town and its inhabitants.
She would write a story, she decided, about a woman in an upstairs room above a main street in a country town, writing a story about a woman writing a story.
This “meta” element of Astley’s novel means it’s not clear whether Janet is an actual character or something dreamed up by writing teacher Evie, but whatever the case, Drylands captures a world in which the written word is in serious peril by a small population obsessed with drinking beer and sport, watching TV, videos and Internet pornography, and playing PlayStation games. (I can’t help but wonder how angry Astley would be if she were alive to see how the Internet and social media have become all-consuming vehicles for serious distraction in today’s switched-on digital world.)
Aside from the scathing anger and the fierce social commentary in this rather wise and knowing novel, I rather enjoyed Astley’s beautiful way with language. I’m grateful that the copy I read was so battered — I bought it in a charity shop for the princely sum of £1.99 several years ago — because that meant I didn’t feel guilty about underlining so much of it in blue pen.
Here’s how she describes what’s it like being surrounded by bush:
A world of gum trees, bark stripping, dangling, their bony limbs rejecting grace, crowded arrogant as beggars in their rags.
Here’s how she describes the view of the Queensland landscape out of a train window:
The countryside was emerging in the pre-dawn light, misty hills and cane fields blurred silver under an uncertain sun blundering its way through clouds.
And, finally, perhaps my favourite sentence in the entire novel:
Along the main street in the clamorous dark the pub was yowling towards its climatic closing time.
Astley is also very astute at capturing human relationships, emotions and motivations. Here’s Evie, the writing teacher, trying to figure out why the women of the town turn up to her classes even though they have little to no creativity in their bones:
Why had they come? What did they expect? She was beginning to understand the isolation of these places that drove people to seize any opportunity to escape from their humdrummery. These four — these pleasant four — were playing truant from husbands who regarded their activity as female folly. They were fighting the darkness.
Did I like this book? It’s hard to say. I think it might be better to say I admired it. I admired the prose, the ideas, the wonderfully rich characterisation, but these stories did not stick, perhaps because the tales felt ephemeral and “untidy” in the sense that there are no neat endings. But, as a whole, Drylands is an evocative, somewhat pessimistic read about a town that grinds everyone down in the end.
For another take on this novel, please read Whispering Gum’s review.