Thea Astley

Draw an outline of the Cape York Peninsula, far north Queensland. Just a rough one. An isosceles triangle, more or less. Now draw its mirror image away from the baseline. Imagine it in 3-0. Two cones. Two cyclones joined, spinning in opposite directions. Male and female vortices balancing each other, consuming each other. That’s it. Two novellas making a novel: Thea Astley’s brilliant Vanishing Points.

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Would it surprise you to know that a number of our well-known writers write to please themselves? Probably not. If there’s no pleasure, or challenge, or stimulus, the outcome would probably not be worth the effort. If this effort is writing, it seems especially unlikely that someone would engage in the activity without enjoying the chance to be their own audience.

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As I became more and more engrossed in this wonderful novel, I asked people I came across ‘Thea Astley?’ And they’d answer vaguely ‘I keep meaning to read her’ or ‘she’s meant to be good’ or ‘I don’t know why I haven’t, she’s written quite a few, hasn’t she?’ Who does read Thea Astley? Me, now; and people I come across will. I’ll make sure of it.

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Returning to live in Queensland seems to have done something to Thea Astley’s perception of Australian country life. In this novel, as well as in her previous one, A Kindness Cup, she gives as appalling and scathing a vision of life in rural Australia as has come from any novelist since Barbara Baynton. Although her prose is as bitingly astringent as ever in this book, it lacks the sardonic humour of her recent collection of short stories Hunting the Wild Pineapple. The pessimism and anger are almost unrelieved.

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There nine stories in this volume are rich in people, satire, compassion, and humour. And set like ambushes, unexpected and surprising, are several cameos. It is a captivating, ensnaring book, but to call it a book of short stories would be so inadequate as to be misleading. There is an uncommon coherence, slender but powerful enough to raise it above that easy classification.

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