Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story is one of the great Australian novels of the last thirty years. When it was first published in 1985, it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. The original cover carried a recommendation by Patrick White, Nobel laureate and the greatest writer of any kind Australia has produced. White said that in Lilian’s Story Kate Grenville had ‘transformed an Australian myth into a dazzling fiction of universal appeal’, and hailed her as a true novelist.

Transforming a myth was something White himself was famously good at, and here it is important to recall that a myth is not necessarily untrue (a point the great biblical scholars emphasised). In his most famous novel Voss (1957), Patrick White adapted the story of Ludwig Leichhardt, the German explorer who led an expedition of exploration into the centre of Australia and perished in the attempt to penetrate the interior. White doesn’t give us a history of Leichardt’s exploration, but he takes the outline of it (and the explorer’s nationality) as a structural idea for his own novel which is a story, in some ways a tragic one, about the quest for identity. In the work of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (whose Poetics is one of the foundations of literary criticism), the word ‘mythos’, from which we get myth, is also the word for plot.

The Australian myth that underlies Lilian’s Story is the life story of Bea Miles (1902–73), the famous Sydney eccentric and ‘madwoman’ who was a familiar figure in the city streets, quoting Shakespeare and hopping into other people’s taxis. For decades – into the 1960s – she was a legend. She was also (to use another idiom that can have a literary shading) ‘a character’. In the book that made her famous (Lilian’s Story, her first book, had already won the 1984 Vogel Literary Award), Kate Grenville created what is still the greatest character in her fiction by giving dramatic form to this extraordinary woman, Lilian Singer, and she did so in a book that is full of colour and energy and feeling.

‘The first thing to notice about Lilian’s Story is the richness of the language’

The first thing to notice about Lilian’s Story is the richness of the language. And it’s worth noting, in the light of Patrick White’s commendation, that the rhetorical, highly coloured language – both the writing looked at as the style of the novel and the richness of the first-person narrative that declares itself as Lilian’s voice, as this super bright, superior, weird character telling her own story – is rich and poetical (some people would say to the point of being ‘purple’) in a way that shows White’s influence.

Lilians Story -Hardcover ed 1986 VikingLilian's Story (Viking, 1986)

Listen to the uncanny, mesmerising quality of the opening of Lilian’s Story; how it plays on our sense of the fantastic to create a sense of Lilian’s very coming into being as a kind of apparition.

It was a wild night in the year of Federation that the birth took place. Horses kicked down the stables. Pigs flew, figs grew thorns. The infant mewled and started and the doctor assured the mother that a caul was a lucky sign. A girl? the father exclaimed, outside in the waiting room, tiled as if for horrible emergencies. This was a contingency he was not prepared for, but he rallied within a day and announced, Lilian. She will be called Lilian Una.

This is a world where pigs fly and language soars and a fat girl tells it how it is in a diction that is intensely imaginative and at the same time earthly and intimate. One way of talking about this style, which does have a family resemblance to White’s, is to describe it as Australian Gothic: it is decorative, it reaches for the sky like a cathedral spire and it also has a highly sensuous quality, a suggestion of devils and gargoyles and other scary objects hidden away among the overarching beauty.

Here is Lilian’s father Albion giving her a belting:

He brought the belt down on my pinafore with a muffled sound. No bloody good, he said crossly, and pushed the pinafore up, pulled my bloomers down. When the belt came down again it cracked against skin. The top of his boot creased at each stroke as his weight came forward, and a deep wrinkle appeared in the leather. It is only skin, I told myself and heard a yelping from somewhere that made me want to laugh. Mother spoke from the doorway, but Father was in his stride now and did not stop to answer her. I was laughing to feel the belt singe my skin.

And here is a moment towards the climax of the second part of Lilian’s Story when something awful is suggested about the relationship between Lilian and her father.

But Father could not let me achieve that, and filled the doorway before I could break apart and fly free of my body. All sound was drawn away into the tiles and past the windows. I watched as everything else fled and Father and I were left with each other. The brown buttons of the cardigan that Mother had given him made a small tinny noise like rats’ feet as he took it off and let it drop to the floor.
In every room of the house, the air that I had stilled fled, and was replaced by trembling and fearful vibrations. I could hear my voice, a thin reedy cry like something choking and not being rescued. Father said nothing at all, but his breathing was like a thundering machine in the silence. All around us the house stood shocked, repelling the sounds we made. My cries carried no further than the carpet of the stairway. The silent rooms would take no part in my struggle, but swallowed the sounds indifferently. No! I heard myself cry with a feeble piping sound. No! No! The house gave back only silence, and the panting of the desperate machine that was Father.

It is striking that there is a devil-may-care sensual quality to the description of the belting, but there is something cloaked and smothered about the description of whatever terrible scene between daughter and father which is half glimpsed but disturbingly sensed near the conclusion of the second part of Lilian’s Story. It marks the end of the continuous story of Lilian’s girlhood and young womanhood, but also – and this is one of the most striking things about the novel and gives it such richness and complexity – the end of Lilian’s sanity, though not of the qualities that make her sympathetic and attractive.

‘One way of talking about this style, which does have a family resemblance to White’s, is to describe it as Australian Gothic’

Lilian’s Story is one of the most remarkable pieces of late-twentieth-century Australian fiction not only because of its richness of orchestration and the originality of its vision, but because it starts as an archetypal account of childhood, progresses into the splendours and miseries of Lilian as a young woman, and then presents her as a deranged old derelict, though a colourful and well-known one.

It is this last vision of Lilian as the spectacularly vivid woman making a spectacle of herself that is the starting point of the myth, the outline of a narrative that makes Lilian’s Story identifiable as a fictionalisation of Miles’s life, as well as an imagining of how this educated and uproarious woman might have come to such a pass that she was living on the streets and sleeping in storm drains. But it is the first two sections of the book, especially the lilting and lyrical account of Lilian’s tomboy childhood, that makes Lilian’s Story one of the most cherished, as well as one of the most distinguished, books in recent Australian literary history.

Lilians Story -A  U revised ed 1991Lilian's Story (Allen & Unwin, 1991)

Kate Grenville, one of Australia’s most highly regarded contemporary novelists, has had remarkable success with her settler and Indigenous Australian novels, The Secret River (2005) and its successors, The Lieutenant (2008) and Sarah Thornhill (2011). The Secret River was made into a successful stage show directed by Neil Armfield, and is now being filmed. These novels have become a focal point for the deep feeling Australians have about the wrongs done to indigenous people. It is part of the subtlety of Grenville’s fictionalisation of this history that she creates a believable story inhabited by lifelike human beings, showing how the crimes could be perpetrated by white settlers not a million miles in the way they think and feel from you and me.

She has also written novels of ordinary life such as The Idea of Perfection (1999), where the focus is closer than the settler/Aboriginal novels, and her second novel, Dreamhouse (1986, though written before Lilian’s Story), is a psychological thriller which tingles with sexual tension. There is also a sort of historical cavalcade, Joan Makes History (1988), which has her heroine flitting from one big moment in Australian history to another (the First Fleet, Ned Kelly, you name it). This book contains a number of interludes in a sharp, attractive style during which some of the characters from the second – young womanhood – section of Lilian’s Story recur. Of course, the big reappearance is in Dark Places (1994), in which Lilian’s dreadful father, Albion, is the central figure.

This book poses a problem for the readers of Lilian’s Story. When the original novel was published, people argued over what had occurred between Lilian and her father. It was clearly an abomination of a relationship (because of him), but had there actually been sexual abuse? By the time Grenville wrote Dark Places, she had made up her mind about this question. She told me, however, that at the time of Lilian’s Story she hadn’t and that the reader should feel free to interpret the first novel on its own terms.

Lilian's Story (Mariner Books, 1994)Lilian's Story (Mariner Books, 1994)

It is a remarkable book. Grenville has a style for Lilian that allows her to sing through her sorrows and her squalors. The first movement of the book is like a revelation because Australian childhood – which can so often be a clichéd subject – is presented with such cumulative intimacy that the reader suddenly finds herself with a thousand memories she didn’t know she had about the daily life and rituals, the weird smells and privacies and insights that go along with that strange, mad experience of being a child.

Lilian’s encounter with Miss Gash, the supposed witch lady with her tabby cat – the woman she is utterly attracted to and ultimately betrays – is just one of a hundred sparkling epiphanies in the first rapturous movement of Lilian’s Story.

The story carries absolute conviction because it is articulated with the power of poetry. Through the sensuous detail and apprehensions of this world of being fat and energised and awkward and rushing into situations with tough, spunky boys and pretty, sly girls are so wonderfully observed, the reader comes to know Lilian’s reality like the back of her own hand, even though the prose has the dreamlike clarity of an Arabian Nights bazaar.

How appropriate that Patrick White should have hailed Lilian’s Story, for the natural response to this book is one of exhilaration, like one’s experience of reading Patrick White’s own novels. Yes, we say, Australia is like this and Australian childhood is like this. Who would have dreamt it? The dreaming is Grenville’s and the accuracy is in the power of the dreaming. This is Kate Grenville’s God-given book. You can tell that this is the moment, right at the outset, where she paints her masterpiece.

The fact that Lilian’s early childhood (she is born in 1901) has an Edwardian setting (the period of Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, of the first series of Downton Abbey) the period before World War I that can seem sunlit and optimistic, is a brilliant touch because it makes the memories themselves seem brilliant and utterly old at the same time. And so we have Lilian raging around, her short-sighted loyal brother, John, her timid, limited mother, and her nightmare of a father collecting his facts, having his breakdown, belting Lilian, screaming at her, deriding her.

‘Yes, we say, Australia is like this and Australian childhood is like this. Who would have dreamt it?’

It is a kind of dream story. Not only in ‘A Girl’, but also in the second section of the novel (‘A Young Lady’), we get, not quite so lyrically but still with a lot of lilt and colour, the sense of the possibilities that might unfold for Lilian. Will she marry her great ‘mate’ Duncan, the slow-talking farm boy, or will she be impelled to spend her days with the poor, wan, brilliant boy F.J. Stroud – as intellectually brilliant as she is, self-conscious about his poor background, with a wounded anger and pride. All of this section captures the dreamlike aspect of a young life, but we know there are shadows on the horizon. The intense enemies of Lilian’s girlhood, like the young stud, Rick, and his love, Ursula, are kind to her now, but we know somehow – or suspect – that Lilian, in her grand way, is not destined for the horse and carriage of conventional love and marriage of the 1930s variety.

The greatest of the shadows, looming and lowering, is her dreadful father. At one stage he throws away her collected Shakespeare. He drowns her book, a famous phrase from Shakespeare’s last play The Tempest, which is quoted more than once in this soaring, life-affirming story of love and pain and identity, this great tragicomic work. Another quote from The Tempest is ‘Hell is empty and all the devils are here’.

Lilian's Story (Canongate UK, 2007)Lilian's Story (Canongate UK, 2007)

In the last section of the book, ‘A Woman’, we see Lilian mad, on the skids, with all the hells and heavens, all the angels and devils, romping through her mind. It is a remarkable vision, sweet with wisdom as well as lunacy and loneliness and dereliction. Lilian wanders as a ‘character’ with people who might or might not be figures from her former life. Her soul, we feel, we in fact know, is intact through it all. And when her no-good father dies, she cries with great racking sobs from somewhere she perceives as deeper than her heart. Her brother John, who knows things she doesn’t know but not what she does, tells her that her father didn’t hate her: he just didn’t think she mattered.

The relationship between Lilian and her father is what we call psychosexual – deep and murky as life itself. The perspective from which this novel is written – Kate Grenville published it when she was thirty-five – is very compatible with the world view of Grenville’s 1960s, Vietnam generation: that your mum – and especially your dad if you were a girl – could, in Philip Larkin’s famous phrase, ‘fuck you up’ in a stupendous way, but the ‘fucking’ didn’t have to be literal: it could all take place in the dreamscape of the mind. Remember, too, that Lilian’s Story is also partly a period novel and that attitudes to everything from corporal punishment to nervous breakdown to marriage as a woman’s primary destiny have changed a lot, not only from one hundred years ago but from fifty, when baby boomers like Grenville were growing up.

Lilians Story -Cover 2008 AU

Another contemporary notion that Lilian’s Story reflects is one that was fashionable in the 1960s and early 1970s and made famous through the work of anti-psychiatrists like R.D. Laing that madness can be a deeper truth. Wasn’t LSD (which was designed to reveal latent psychosis) used to open the doors of perception? In the later poems of the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats, there is a figure called Crazy Jane who says, ‘nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent’. The French thinker Michel Foucault wrote a book called Madness and Civilisation that highlights the tragicomic wisdom of works like King Lear. He also argued that mental illness as a medical condition was a comparatively recent invention. But all this is just grist to the mill and a matter of influences. The real power of Lilian’s Story derives from the grandeur of its vision, the way the novel transfigures all of its influences and presents us with an image of life – full of pain and desecration and the shadow of rape and madness – to which we can only assent. It is a luminous and encompassing vision to which we can only say yes.

Yeats’s Crazy Jane says with great and desolated beauty:

I lay stretched out in the dirt
And I cried tears down 

To face the reality of that and turn it into art as Kate Grenville does in Lilian’s Story is a triumph.

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Most Australians, if asked to name a date they associate with the name Gough Whitlam, would say ‘11 November 1975’. Steven Carroll subverts this expectation at the outset with Forever Young, which uses the last days of Whitlam as its historical backdrop as well as for other less tangible things. And the last days of Whitlam came not in 1975 but on 10 December 1977, when he was still leading the Labor Party in Opposition but stepped down after Labor lost its second federal election in two years. ‘He’s got that goodbye look in his eyes.’

This is the fifth novel in the ‘Glenroy’ series that began with The Art of the Engine Driver (2001). The series has followed the progress of a small family – Vic, Rita, and their son, Michael – since 1957, when Michael was a child growing up in an outer suburb of Melbourne that was still in the process of being transformed from dusty paddocks to a place with milk bars and factories. The most recent novel in the series, Spirit of Progress (2011), harks back to 1946 and brings in some new characters, who reappear in one plot strand of Forever Young, where they feature in one of the Dickensian coincidences that Carroll uses unapologetically to illustrate the way that time loops itself around in the mind to produce moments of significance and illumination.

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  • Custom Article Title Kerryn Goldsworthy reviews 'Forever Young' by Steven Carroll
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  • Custom Highlight Text Most Australians, if asked to name a date they associate with the name Gough Whitlam, would say ‘11 November 1975’. Steven Carroll subverts this expectation at the outset ...
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  • Biblio Fourth Estate, $29.95 pb, 342 pp, 9780732291228

The shortlist for the 2011 Miles Franklin Literary Award, which included Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance, was controversial because it consisted of only three novels, all written by men. The exclusion of women writers for that year itself was noteworthy: for example, Fiona McGregor’s fine novel of Sydney, Indelible Ink (Scribe), did not even appear on the longlist. The 2011 shortlist served also to emphasise the historical male dominance of the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Nonetheless, Scott’s That Deadman Dance, a novel about early contact between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Western Australia, was a worthy and widely anticipated winner. And as Scott noted, indigenous writers are also under-represented in the history of the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Apart with Scott himself, whose earlier novel Benang shared the 2000 award with Thea Astley’s Drylands, Alexis Wright won in 2007 for Carpentaria.

An academic as well as a writer, Scott’s publishing history demonstrates a singular and thoughtful approach to discussions about indigenous culture, including language reclamation. Apart from fiction, his published works include Kayang & Me (2005), a memoir co-written with his elder Hazel Brown, in which Brown’s stories and Scott’s probing discussion commingle. He has also co-authored books for children as part of the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project. The reflective care that Scott brings to these tasks is also evident in the way he describes himself. For example, his biography on the Miles Franklin Literary Award website reads, ‘Kim Scott’s ancestral Noongar country is the south-east coast of Western Australia between Gairdner River and Cape Arid. His cultural Elders use the term Wirlomin to refer to their clan, and the Norman Tindale nomenclature identifies people of this area as Wudjari/Koreng.’ On the website of Curtin University, where Scott works, he is, ‘A descendant of people living along the south coast of Western Australia prior to colonisation and proud to be one among those who call themselves Noongar.’In engaging so carefully with questions of identity, language, and culture, Scott challenges the rest of us to take these matters seriously. It is symptomatic of his writing, which is open-armed but precise and challenging.

Issues around the damage, protection, and evolution of culture, as well as the importance of language in acts of colonisation and resistance, form the foundation of That Deadman Dance. In the novel, Scott imagines a contact history between Noongar people and non-indigenous people (both British settlers and American whalers) in an imagined landscape closely inspired by his hometown, Albany, and the surrounding area on the south-east coast of Western Australia. As Scott notes, some historians have called this area ‘the friendly frontier’. Scott takes this landscape, together with historical accounts and testimonies of indigenous and non-indigenous people as well as the work of the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project, to imagine a place in which the term ‘the friendly frontier’ makes sense but is also disquieting. The resultant story runs from 1826 to 1844, although not chronologically. Jumps in time, forward and back, give the story a charged feel by showing how European settlement builds sturdy foundations, something that seems unlikely in the earliest uncertain moments of occupation.

‘In engaging so carefully with questions of identity, language, and culture, Scott challenges the rest of us to take these matters seriously.’

At first, in That Deadman Dance, the colonisers depend on the Noongar, but after less than two decades the settlement is well established and the non-indigenous inhabitants of this new community are so troublesome that ‘steps must be taken’. Scott adds another stage to this story of cross-cultural contact by briefly moving forward decades to observe the main character, Bobby Wabalanginy, in old age putting on a clownish command performance for tourists, winking, dancing, singing, telling tales, and launching boomerangs: ‘Sometimes he would throw off his policeman’s jacket and heavy boots and drape a kangaroo skin over his shoulders and – since they wanted a real old-time Aborigine, but not completely – wear the red underpants.’ The narrator’s observation that Bobby ‘offered himself as a fine image of the passing of time’ reverberates all the way to the twenty-first century.

That Deadman Dance (Pan Macmillan)That Deadman Dance (Pan Macmillan)

Scott’s earlier novel, Benang: From the Heart (1999), tackles a later stage of Western Australian settlement, the early decades of the twentieth century. Australia is now a nation in which, for example, a policeman can say, ‘You need licenses for possums, if you’re selling. Oh, kills as many as you want for food, for yourself. It used to be your country.’ A dense and sardonic tale about assimilation, eugenics and cultural survival, Benang is one of the more startling and original novels yet published in Australia. It also serves as an unsettling sibling book to That Deadman Dance. While neither novel relies on the other, there are considerable rewards to be had from mulling over the elongated story they combine to tell.

In a mixed review in The Guardian, Carol Birch called That Deadman Dance ‘an exercise in lush impressionism’. But while the novel is lyrical and richly observed, its most distinctive quality is its hard-edged restraint. The complexity of early contact between indigenous and non-indigenous people drives the story, especially the very different ways of understanding the land, moving through the land and using the land (and sea). Accommodation and conflict, human strength and weakness, purposefulness and vacillation, take place upon the land that the new arrivals start naming and trying to dominate. In this context, ‘lush impressionism’ does not come close to capturing the complexity of Scott’s storytelling.

At the centre of the story is Bobby, whom readers get to know as a boy and a man. In his prime, he strides between worlds and, importantly for Scott, between languages; he is a leader, thinker, innovator, diplomat, and observer. Bobby and Christine, the daughter of settlers, resemble childhood sweethearts. They brush against each other playing hide-and-seek; he sings her songs and teaches her Noongar words, including the word for ‘kiss’: ‘They sang the song together, faces close, lips reaching out.’ But their connection – symptomatic of many others – is partial and finite. Years later, when Bobby carries Christine from a rowboat to the shore, her father Geordie says, ‘Damn you, Bobby. You are not children anymore.’

Around Bobby, Scott offers complex and humane portraits of indigenous and non-indigenous people. As Morag Fraser notes, ‘it is the characters – flawed, credible human beings, embodying their history but never mere ciphers – who stay with you’. Perhaps most absorbing is Dr Cross, a sickly man with high ambitions for the colony and his place in it who lacks the physical energy to achieve those ambitions. Cross seems genuinely respectful of the Noongar people, but he also knows that he needs their support and goodwill if he and other settlers are to have any chance of taming the land. His affection for the Noongar, then, is both real and practical: ‘They do not yet need us’ (emphasis added). In turn, the Noongar people cannot help but understand the seriousness of the conundrum: ‘So many of Menak’s people were dying and, although Cross was a friend, Menak did not think they needed more of his people here.’

That Deadman Dance - MF stickerThat Deadman Dance (2011)Cross forms a special and abiding friendship with Wunyeran, Bobby’s uncle; one time, in a stunning scene, they sing to each other, finding a way to extend their communication. Upon Wunyeran’s death, Cross is sufficiently overcome with grief as to pray to God to admit Wunyeran into heaven, ‘despite the many – not knowing him – who would say heathen and insist he was but an uncultivated savage’. On the one hand, this seems a moving and generous act – and yes, an act that suggests something approaching equality. On the other hand, it imposes a presumptuous world view. When Cross’s assistant mishandles Wunyeran’s body according to Noongar customs, there is an excruciating tenderness about Cross’s efforts to make amends. But while his desire to right a wrong resonates, so too – ultimately more so – does the futility of the effort.

Eventually, Wunyeran and Cross share a grave. Again, it is open to readers to interpret this outcome as an affirmation of cross-cultural friendship – or to view it as a gesture that belies the forcefulness of non-indigenous intrusion. Indeed, the moment is both beautiful and beautifully delusionary. The joint grave, and the subsequent contrasting fates of the two men’s remains, is a key example of a tone that typifies That Deadman Dance: in a story with so much potential for overblown symbolism, Scott mostly – and this is quite a feat – avoids transparent or simplified parables on reconciliation and race relations.

‘Issues around the damage, protection, and evolution of culture form the foundation of That Deadman Dance

Bobby is an expert of the Dead Man Dance, a potent symbol of first contact. The dance is not actually about the dead men but about white-skinned people appearing from across the ocean. But in Bobby’s inventive version of the dance, he becomes the settlers: ‘quick striding Soldier Killam, with that twist to his torso and the bad arm; the hulking Convict Skelly; Dr Cross (oh, poor thing, remember him?); Chain, bouncing up and down on his toes, throwing commands with his arms.’ Bobby’s dance – his detailed mimicry, and especially his comic timing – re-imagines the changes wrought upon his world by ambitious colonisers such as Geordie Chaine, whose every breath seems to be a pursuit of progress and development.

Scott’s novel serves a similar purpose to Bobby’s dance. Against a backdrop of agriculture and whales, Scott offers a subtle portrayal of cross-cultural contact, incorporating reliance, collaboration, all manner of miscommunication and, especially, distinct and often incompatible interpretations of events, behaviour, and outcomes. In time, Bobby comes to understand that the settlers do not consider the Noongar people as equals. For example, he watches, shocked, as Chaine treats the elder Menak with rough contempt. Bobby’s downward spiral is swift. But even as he strikes out, as if floundering in rough seas, he finds a way to resist. He makes an impassioned public plea, by way of a public performance. It is ingenious, courageous, and hilarious – but futile.

That Deadman Dance (Picador, 2012 edition)That Deadman Dance (Picador, 2012 edition)In Scott’s hands, this climax – this solution that is no solution at all – becomes a riveting, vibrant synthesis of the novel’s themes. Not least, it reinforces that culture and resistance endures and adapts, but also that acts of dispossession and appropriation occurred – and occur – slowly, not in some fantastic moment of first contact. And yet there are moments that go beyond exchange for mutual need, or expediency, and that are genuinely affectionate – times when the expression ‘the friendly frontier’ seems to make some sense. Ultimately, though, this complexity makes the bigger story even hard to bear.

So soon after its publication, it is premature to state a case for That Deadman Dance as an Australian classic, especially in an era in which the term ‘classic’ is used so indiscriminantly. But – as with Benang – it has all the qualities of a book that will remain urgent. That Deadman Dance is restrained, but restraint should not be mistaken for limpness. Scott’s voice is forceful, at times angry, at times indignant, but only rarely do the characters seem burdened by didactic political templates or agendas.

‘Scott offers a subtle portrayal of cross-cultural contact’

That Deadman Dance speaks urgently to modern Australia, but not in a way that imposes twenty-first-century debates and sensibilities upon early colonisation. It is mindful of the possibilities, limitations, and dangers of reconciliation. Scott himself has called the novel optimistic, and it certainly points to shared, if imperfect, ways forward. And yet there are many moments – especially the magnificently written final scene – that are shocking and deeply challenging. As Scott has said, ‘There is a lot of reconciling – particularly reconciling ourselves to our shared history – that is yet to happen.’

The richness of Scott’s vision, the sense of generosity of spirit that imbues the novel, does not compromise the sense of profound disruption and dislocation – and the enduring capacities for resistance and new, more meaningful collaborations. The fact that Bobby straddles two cultures does not, in Scott’s hand, become a neat lesson: therein lies the potency and the furious challenge of That Deadman Dance. This fine novel is beautifully and calmly told, rich but measured in its imagery, populated by subtle and flawed characters, propelled forward by a historically familiar but subtle plot. It is a story that captures the messiness of indigenous–non-indigenous relations in Australia, but also one that does not allow readers to get away with imagining that taking stock of all that messiness – merely acknowledging it – can itself be a comforting or cleansing act.


Birch, Carol. ‘That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott – review’, The Guardian, 8 December 2012

Fraser, Morag. ‘That Deadman Dance’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 January 2011

Kim Scott wins prestigious Miles Franklin’, ABC News, 22 June 2011

Scott, Kim. Benang: from the heart, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1999.

Scott, Kim. That Deadman Dance, Picador, 2010.

Scott, Kim, and Hazel Brown. Kayang & Me. Fremantle Press, 2013, 2nd edn.

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‘For our house is our corner of our world … If we look at it intimately, the humblest dwelling has beauty.’

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (1958)

Houses, and their domestic spaces of intimacy and negotiation, sit at the core of Helen Garner’s early fiction. Most often they are large, communal houses in Melbourne’s Carlton or Fitzroy, places where a generation of youngish countercultural musicians, artists, and wounded souls challenge the accepted rules of sexual relationships and attempt to redefine what might constitute family. In the kitchens and bedrooms of Monkey Grip (1977), Honour and Other People’s Children (1980), and Cosmo Cosmolino (1992), Garner’s characters wrestle with their passions and ideals. The new patterns of living that they establish offer, particularly for the women, a sense of liberating possibility beyond marriage and childrearing, but that freedom is coupled with compromise and loss. In The Children’s Bach (1984), Garner shifts her focus to the suburban household of a married couple. In this novella, she both critiques and celebrates the burdens of responsibility and commitment.

The critically acclaimed Monkey Grip had drawn fire from a raft of (largely male) critics, who railed against Garner’s style and subject matter. She was pilloried for working from her journal and for writing from a female perspective about private matters: emotions, sex, interior lives. Following the publication of Honour and Other People’s Children, she was again criticised for focusing on domestic situations rather than ‘larger areas of the normal’. Indeed, Anne Summers was bored by Garner’s ‘fine-etching of the emotions, without reference to any external events’, wishing instead that she would ‘open the front door and move out a little into the world’. In The Children’s Bach, Garner burrows deeply into the domestic space of the Fox family’s home, before throwing the doors wide open to the destabilising influences of the world beyond. The house itself becomes almost porous, a membrane through which various characters pass. Yet something solid remains at its core.

The Children's Bach (Penguin first edition, 1986)The Children's Bach (Penguin first edition, 1986)

Dexter Fox is a principled, gregarious, opinionated man. He and his wife Athena are lovers and friends. They live a fairly mundane, contented life in Bunker Street caring for their two sons, Arthur and Billy. Billy has a form of autism, which places an added burden on family relations. Until Dexter’s old friend Elizabeth and her lover Philip come into their life, the Foxes remain quarantined from the underworld, or the other world, of nightclubs, drugs, and extramarital sex. Athena runs a fairly peaceful, functioning household. She washes, cleans, irons, and gossips contentedly with friends, but she is suffocating in a house whose doors are never locked. She fantasises about escape (yet even in those fantasies she dreams of the fabulous curtains she would sew).

In the novella’s extraordinary opening paragraph, Garner describes a photograph of Lord Alfred Tennyson and his family. In a 1993 interview, she admitted to having found this photograph well into her research and being struck by the body language of the subjects. The photograph seemed to echo her concerns. Here was a confident patriarch, his seemingly subservient wife and two sons, one with a distant, contrary perspective. So, on one level, the dynamics of this group map nicely onto the Fox family unit. Dexter has stuck this photograph to the kitchen wall. It is tattered and grease-stained, but every time it threatens to slip off the wall completely, ‘someone saves it, someone sticks it back’. From the outset, therefore, Garner suggests that the Fox family, though it may be battered and bruised, will persevere. Her use of this particular photograph, however, is just one of the many shorthand strategies she employs to imbue this novella with depth and complexity.

‘The critically acclaimed Monkey Grip had drawn fire from a raft of (largely male) critics, who railed against Garner’s style and subject matter’

It was Tennyson who wrote ‘The Lady of Shalott’, that great Victorian poem about female entrapment and the sacrifice required of women artists. So at a time when second-wave feminism was enjoying ascendancy in Australia, Garner – through her choice of photograph – invited readers to consider how far women have really progressed since Victorian times. Like Tennyson’s ‘Lady’, Athena tinkers with her art, removed from the outside world. Like Tennyson’s ‘Lady’, she too will be tempted from her isolated, unadventurous existence into a world of risk and uncertainty.

Athena operates as a modern-day ‘Angel in the House’, a term coined by the poet Coventry Patmore (1823–96), to describe women in the Victorian era:

Confined to the home, women were expected to be domestic, innocent, and utterly helpless when matters outside the home were concerned. Not only was the home where women would be protected from the dangers of the outside world, it was also where they could keep their innocence and be a beacon of morality for their husbands.

Dexter insists that Athena is a ‘saint’ and that she is lured away by Philip because she is ‘naïve’. Philip’s daughter Poppy thinks she is ‘perfect’. To Elizabeth’s young sister Vicki, she seems ‘contained, without needs, never restless’. Meanwhile, Athena’s shoulders ‘tremble with holding back’.

The Children's Bach (Penguin international edition, 1986)The Children's Bach (Penguin international edition, 1986)

Music, as language, metaphor, and lived experience, infuses this narrative. Each character has a unique approach to music, in its various forms, which reflects their personality and their relationships with each other. For example, Dexter’s booming ‘dramatic baritone’ demands an audience and dwarfs Athena’s attempt at musical expression. In private she ‘picks away at Bartók’s Mikrokosmos or the easiest of Bach’s Small Preludes’, in turn exhilarated and abashed by her attempts. Garner herself had her first piano lesson when she was forty, a few years before she wrote The Children’s Bach. Speaking to Sue Woolfe and Kate Grenville in 1993, she noted that learning the piano made her aware of ‘the almost moral struggle that playing music entails’.Like Athena, Garner struggled timidly with the piano keys, striving ‘to perceive form, to establish order’. So too in her writing she pares back, edits and structures her narrative so that it reads seamlessly as an easily accessible domestic drama, while offering the reader a deeply textured, powerful consideration of ethical relations. Philip makes this link between writing and music obvious when he advises the young songwriter to ‘Take out the clichés … Just leave in the images … Make gaps … Don’t explain everything. Leave holes. The music will do the rest.’

‘Music, as language, metaphor, and lived experience, infuses this narrative’

The novella’s title is taken from a primer of keyboard music, edited by E. Harold Davies, in whose opening pages we read: ‘Polyphony: which is the combining together of many melodies – requires first and foremost, a sure instinct for each individual part.’ Through short vignettes Garner simultaneously provides access to each character’s thoughts and voice. As Don Anderson has suggested, Garner ‘weaves her characters’ loves and lives together … in a way that Papa Bach would have recognised as contrapuntal’.

Garner has credited the women’s movement for giving her the licence to write about ‘what happens in people’s houses’ rather than more obviously political or historical topics, like ‘The War or that kind of thing: huge subjects, mighty things’. The politics of human, and of gendered, relations informs the drama of The Children’s Bach. Athena, Vicki, Elizabeth, Poppy, and old Mrs Fox represent, in various ways, female experience, opportunity, and expectation. They exist in a world where ‘men fuck girls without loving them. Girls cry in the lavatories’; a world where women are sexually harassed on buses and denigrated through obscene humour. But they also exist in a world – unknown and abhorrent to Dexter – where the ‘rules’ of ‘modern life’ allow them sexual freedom and personal liberty.

The Children's Bach (Penguin, 1999 edition)The Children's Bach (Penguin, 1999 edition)

Dexter, for all his old-fashioned ideas and domineering style, is a very likeable character. Indeed, Garner has commented that The Children’s Bach demonstrated a significant change in her writing about relationships between men and women, ‘because there is a male character capable of love, which I hadn’t been able to think about before’. Garner sets up a powerful contrast between the solid, righteous Dexter and the amoral, unreliable Philip. Significantly, both men are caring fathers, but Dexter’s commitment to his wife and children, particularly Billy, contrasts with Philip’s casual availability to Poppy and to women generally. Both men are desirable in very different ways. Ultimately, Athena’s sexual attraction to Philip and the world he represents, cannot be repressed.

In a spare and moving scene, Elizabeth offers Philip to Athena: ‘Their fingers met formally at the high corners of the sheet. Elizabeth’s relinquished, Athena’s accepted. As they folded, as they spoke, the light left the garden.’ With Philip, Athena thinks: ‘Perhaps there was a world where people could act on whims, where deeds could detach themselves cleanly from all notion of consequences.’ And so she abandons Dexter, her sons and her home to go with Philip to Sydney. Yet, in her freedom there is loss: ‘She walks the city feeling like a tourist, aware ‘that the day without duty passes with the slowness of a dream.’ Sydney is represented as a nightmare landscape. Like the family’s pet rabbit, once domesticated Athena cannot survive in the wider world. Dexter follows her and pleads for her to come home, but she is not yet ready. A shattered Dexter returns to Melbourne alone and at the end of a drunken evening makes love to Vicki only to wake up in a blaze of self-disgust. No one, in Garner’s world, is beyond reproach. But neither are they judged.

Marriage, life, and playing music are all complex tasks requiring dedication and hard work. In an early scene where Athena is patronised and humiliated by Dexter and Vicki for her lack of musical talent, Elizabeth remarks: ‘The Children’s Bach. God, listen to this – how pompous. “Bach is never simple, but that is one reason why we should all try to master him.”’ We can substitute ‘life’ and ‘marriage’ for ‘Bach’ in that sentence. Elizabeth exhorts Athena to ‘Show us how you’ve mastered him’, but at that point, she has not.

The Children's Bach (Penguin, 2008 edition)The Children's Bach (Penguin, 2008 edition)

At a time of her choosing, Athena returns to her husband, children and messy home. It is a conscious choice and is a cause for celebration. She sets about restoring domestic order as only she can, finally sitting down at the kitchen table and waiting for her family to come home. Garner concludes the novella with an exceptional sentence in the future continuous tense, a sentence that sweeps up the many fragmentary strands of the novella into a vision of hope. Hope does not, however, translate to facile romanticism. Athena will be reconciled to Dexter, and to life with Dexter, but she will also ‘dream again and again, against her will, of Philip, or rather of not-Philip’. Female desire cannot and should not be quashed. Somehow, Garner suggests, desire needs to be reconciled within a marriage.

Davies’ edited volume of The Children’s Bach (1933) opens with ‘A Song of Resignation’ and closes with ‘A Song of Love’. So too, Garner concludes her novella with a song of love, a song about the complexity of married love and the conscious compromises such a love might entail: both the steady left hand of duty and the soaring right hand of joyous potential:

and Athena will play Bach on the piano, in the empty house, and her left hand will keep up the steady rocking beat, and her right hand will run the arpeggios, will send them flying, will toss handfuls of notes high into the sparkling air!

That final sentence proclaims not only Athena’s growing confidence; it also declares Garner’s assured sense of herself, finally, as a writer.

Anderson, Don. ‘A Tale of Modern Love: The Children’s Bach’, Hot Copy: Reading and Writing Now (1986).
Bach, Johann Sebastian. The Children’s Bach. Edited by E. Harold Davies (1933).
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Maria Jolas (1992/1958).
Grenville, Kate and Sue Woolfe. Making Stories: How ten Australian novels were written (1993).
Rogers, Shelagh. ‘Interview with Helen Garner’. Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada Vol.1 (1989).
Summers, Anne. ‘Review of Honour and Other People’s Children’, cited in Anderson.
The Angel in the House’, Victorian Poetry, Poetics and Context.

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It’s Raining in Mango: Pictures from the Family Album was first published in 1987, on the eve of the bicentenary of white settlement in Australia, when many versions of the story of Australia were advanced and debated. Thea Astley’s book presents a family, the Laffeys, as a microcosm of the national story. It is a novel made up of stories told by Connie, an ageing woman, as she mulls over ‘pictures from the family album’, covering a period from the 1860s to the 1980s.

The title refers to Mango, an imaginary small town rather like Kuranda, near Cairns in far north Queensland, where Thea Astley lived for some time, and which is the heartland of her fiction’s landscapes. The rain signifies the onset of the tropical wet season, which brings regeneration after months of intense heat in the ‘build-up’ following the dry months. The Wet can also bring cyclones and floods, destruction as well as renewal. The rhythm of these seasonal changes runs through the human emotions dramatised in It’s Raining in Mango. The book’s epigraph is a song from the Oenpelli region (further west, in Arnhem Land) which welcomes the rain as ‘it falls on my sweetheart’, on the land that longs for it.

Its Raining in Mango

A short preface dramatises the beginning of Connie’s movement back to recall the past, via the family album. ‘A chanting mob of greenies’ demonstrate against a new road being hacked through the rainforest. Her son Reever has lashed himself to a tree, fifty feet above ground. Connie runs down from her house to remonstrate with him, but falls and is concussed. In a confused state, she is struck by the power of the idea of home, which stayed with her whenever she travelled: ‘a sense of self lamented its lost sense of place.’ Despite all the people she has met outside of this place, ‘only the family as she knows it has cohesion, provides a core’. Mentally listing them, from her grandparents down to her son, she thinks of the family as intimately bound up with this place: ‘Laffeys. In this rainforest triangle, tented in green. Bedouins of the sticky leaf.’ Awareness of her age and her present frailty, and the repeated phrase, ‘She goes back to the start of things,’ all create a sense of urgency that carries the reader with Connie into the stories which follow.

The stories create a discontinuous narrative of the Laffey family’s history in the far north since the 1860s. Like Astley’s own grandfather, Cornelius Laffey arrived in Queensland from Canada to work as a journalist and eventually deserted his wife and children. In the first story, ‘How to get sacked’, Connie remembers herself as a child, begging her grandmother, Jessica Olive, for stories about Cornelius. ‘He’d charm the halo off a saint,’ she was told, ‘Or at least make the saint wear it tipped sideways.’ Taking his young family from Sydney up to the northernmost settlement, Cooktown, Cornelius gets a job on the local paper and continues on his merry way, much to Jessica Olive’s distress. Even more distressing, however, are the family’s experiences of the even more remote goldfields, and of the massacre of local Aboriginal people by diggers. George, their son, is traumatised by the discovery of a ‘bonefield’ of unburied Aboriginal men. ‘Are blacks worth less?’ the child asks. Cornelius writes articles in condemnation of the way ‘Blacks are now being shot on sight as if they were some pernicious vermin’ – and is sacked for his efforts.

Its Raining in Mango (Penguin edition, 1989)It's Raining in Mango (Penguin edition, 1989)

The other stories focus on various members of the family – George and his sister Nadine, who has a child when she is fourteen and runs away from home, ending up working in a brothel; Jessica Olive bringing up that child, her grandson Harry, alone after Nadine’s death and Cornelius’s disappearance; George and his wife Mag and their children, Connie and Will; Harry and his wife Clytie, who give Connie and Will a home after their parents’ deaths, during the 1930s Depression. As the stories progress, there is a more consistent focus on Connie and her brother Will, coming to a tragic climax in the penultimate story, ‘Old Man in a Dry Month’ (the title phrase is taken from T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘Gerontion’, signifying not just old age but spiritual dryness and despair). This climax happens at the time of the protest against the making of a road through the rainforest, with which the series began. The final story, ‘Source Material’, focuses on Connie’s son Reever, now about forty years old, who leaves Connie and home in Mango soon after Will’s death, to walk even further north.

At intervals the lives of an Aboriginal family, Bidgi Mumbler and his descendants, touch on those of the Laffeys: they may not feature in the white settler family’s photo album but their focal presence in three of the stories, where they intersect with the Laffeys, is a reminder of their continuing presence, and of the violent dispossession that they suffered at the hands of white colonists, settlers, and diggers alike. The initial stories of massacre are followed by incidents of child removal (‘Heart is where the home is’), racial discrimination and brutal beatings to which the law turns a blind eye (‘It’s Raining in Mango’).

Violence is the central theme of these historical stories – of lawlessness on the mining fields, of poverty, of returned soldiers after World War I walking the roads looking for work and being beaten by the police (‘Right off the map’) and returned soldiers traumatised by World War II like Will (‘Committing Sideways’). Violence is also present in the smaller cruelties practised in institutions. Closer to the present, Australia’s violent history manifests itself in the greed of the ‘developers’ who tear down the rainforest, and in the way the ‘family’ of drop-outs cadge off Will and mock him.

Its Raining in Mango unknown edition

At the same time – and this is why reading Mango is a pleasurable experience – it is a history of human types and events that are often comically outrageous. As well as Jessica Olive’s tirade against the local priest, there is the brothel where Nadine fetches up, washed out to sea during a cyclone with its cargo of singing prostitutes; there are Harry Laffey’s multiple seductions and his violent death (his wife publishes a death notice which reads: ‘husband of Clytie Roseanne, mourned by Lucie Compers, Martha Zweig, Etta Panici ... and others too numerous to mention’); there is Chant the false prophet and his followers, there is impoverished Billy Mumbler, gaoled for tax evasion, and many more. The Far North is ‘a kind of human confetti’, as Reever sees it: ‘Beach hermits, crazy ferals, tin scratchers, yacht freaks, madmen still fossicking for gold in tableland backwaters, dole gurus in Mango’s hills, southern sharpies declared bankrupt there but mysteriously solvent here, junkies and dope dealers … – an army of workers, scroungers, pseudo-saints and the real thing’.

At least some of this ‘human confetti’, however, have made their home here for generations, like the Laffeys, and as Will inverts the old saying, ‘Heart is where the home is’. They belong, if they belong anywhere, here in the North, managing a pub (Jessica Olive), working a small farm (George, then Harry) or a garden (Will), nursing at the local hospital and sometimes teaching music (Connie), doing odd jobs and hanging out with the hippies and protestors (Reever). Their belonging is implicitly at odds with the mythology of heroic white settlers: Jessica Olive is scornful of the ‘pioneer fantasy’ that underpins her son George’s desire to farm; Will reflects that ‘this country eats up towns’, small inland settlements ‘the wind-shot, bush-pole scrubbers tied into settler hearts and nailed down with the excitement of vision’.

A different kind of belonging to the land keeps the Mumblers together despite the best efforts of police and welfare workers to deprive them of each other, as they had long ago been deprived of their traditional hunting grounds. ‘Heart is where the home is’ for Nelly Mumbler, when she returns to the camp rather than accept George’s offer of a home for herself and her man, which might keep her baby safe. Billy Mumbler’s mother sends him a letter when he’s in gaol: ‘You come soon, you homes hear, its rainin in Mango.’

The Laffeys’ is a tentative kind of belonging. At the end, Reever recalls all the family stories, including Connie’s account of her wartime years, her sexual initiation and her brief marriage to his American father, who died at Iwo Jima. By now he shares his mother’s sense of being made up of many selves, of Jessica Olive, Cornelius, George, Nadine, Harry. He resolves to go back to his ‘source material’, to walk as far north ‘up to Charco and in to the Palmer’, the far north river settlement where the family saga started. He sets off on foot, with only a backpack.

‘Suicide haunts the stories in Mango

Reever’s decision recalls the desperate swagman’s intention to head north ‘right off the map’, but in that earlier story the unnamed man’s desire for an extreme destination strongly suggested that suicide was his aim. Suicide haunts the stories in Mango – first this swagman, then Harry’s death, described by Connie as a possible case of ‘committing sideways’, her euphemism for suicide. Then there is the young man washed up on the beach in ‘Build-Up’, whom Connie resuscitates, only to hear his first words: ‘Thanks for nothing.’ Last and most tragically, her brother Will pays all his bills, makes her a farewell visit and drives away with his rifle: ‘She will never hear the shot.’ Reever’s departure, we surmise, is his way of grieving for Will, who appears to him, ‘broken in a spiritual two beside the path where he’s standing. Will, ankle-deep in mud, pleading for something.’ Connie’s grief takes a different form: ‘Even at the end of things, she is still looking for a reason.’

Its Raining in Mango - Penguin edition 2010It's Raining in Mango (Penguin Classics edition, 2010)

Connie is the central consciousness of this story sequence, the one who is capable of thinking herself into the position of each of her family members in turn. But it is her brother Will whose life gets the most extended treatment. He is the focal character of three chapters, and he emerges as a tragic figure. Always a loner, he is bullied at school for his love of music. As an adult, traumatised by his wartime experiences, aware of his sexual attraction to other men but hating the thought of ‘the passing insults from louts’, he lives most intensely with his music, his painting and, eventually, the garden he builds at Mango: ‘it was as if the fecundity missing in his personal life transferred itself to the luxuriance of his park.’ His closest encounter with another human being, however, is with his sister Connie, when as adults they swim naked and make love at a moonlit beach. This extraordinary incident Astley treats with understated sympathy, unlike any other sexual encounter in her fiction: ‘They walked back to the house parted by what had happened. There should have been horror somewhere but there wasn’t quite that. Will felt as if something had entered his life and then drained it.’

Eventually, in his sixties, Will becomes infatuated with one of the young men in the ‘family’ of drop-outs who are camped in his garden. This beautiful young man (his ‘skin glistened like tanned silk’) is a talented musician. He is also a callous user of others. He plays on Will’s attraction to him, while the other family members look on with dismay or amusement. It is his girlfriend, Flute, who flings the first insult at Will: ‘You’ve got the hots for him, haven’t you, mister? ... And it isn’t any good, is it, because you’re not making any play, are you? ... You ought to hear the things he says about you! God, you’re a laugh!’ But far worse – ‘the ultimate debasement’ – is when Buckle turns on him when he tries to join the family in their protest against the road builders: ‘Piss off, old man.’

Connie rescues Will from this humiliating encounter, but nothing she says can rescue his faith in life. ‘It’s as if all my nerve centres have been wired up again and wrong,’ he tells her. In response to her suggestion that her way of coping with old age might work for him – ‘I go back and back. There’s safety there. Today is yesterday already’ – Will says, ‘I can’t move out of this stinking present.’ At the end, he drives away from Connie, and from the old homestead where she is keeper of their family’s past. As he is leaving he ‘raced up the steps as if he were twenty again and had come to some decision, and, putting his arms round her, hugged her tightly and warmly and said, ‘I love you, Con’. This reminds Connie of ‘that day, that night, forty years ago’ and she is frightened. Nothing more is said, but readers know, from Will’s sleepless musings at the opening of this chapter, that he has indeed come to a fateful decision. Yet a feeling of peace accompanies his thought that this ‘dear little planet’ affirms his faith in God, and he finds himself whistling Schubert’s ‘The Winter Journey’, which reminds him of waiting for the Wet to begin, the renewal process, while at the same time suggesting that his journey of despair, his Winterreise, is ended.

Connie understands a great deal about the brother she loves, but she appears not to understand what bearing his homosexuality might have had on this flight from himself and others; nor is she aware of the danger he courted in taking in the hippie ‘family’ and falling so hopelessly for Buckle. Astley invites readers to understand this, however, by showing Will’s inner reality directly and at length. In this way she ‘frames’ Connie’s limitations as a storyteller.

There is another example of this kind of critical narrative framing to be seen in the story called ‘Heart is where the home is’. It alludes to the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal children: George and his wife Mag hide Nelly Mumbler’s baby from the invading police who intend to take him away, and then offer her and her man a safe home on their farm. Nelly cannot accept: ‘Don’t want to leave my family,’ she sobs. George does not understand why: ‘God love us, they’re only a mile up the river.’ But ‘family’ for her is:

The old men old women uncles aunts cousins brothers sisters tin humpies bottles dogs dirty blankets tobacco handouts fights river trees all the tribe’s remnants and wretchedness, destruction and misery.
Her second skin now.
‘Not same,’ she whispered. And she cried them centuries of tribal dream in those two words. ‘Not same.’

Nelly’s idea of family is radically different from George’s: in such respects the two cultures are not comparable, and this difference is perhaps the hardest thing for settler Australians to understand.

Astley attempts to draw attention to this limitation in her novel. By ‘framing’ Connie as a storyteller with wide sympathies but incomplete understanding, she suggests a significant parallel between the two kinds of stories, the dominant version of the nation, and the photo album version of the family. Both nation and family tell a story that by definition must exclude anything that is radically other. Where the settler Australian national story excludes the racial other, the Indigenous people, the traditional family story excludes the sexual other. Will is loved but he is ‘not same’, not fully understood.

‘Astley was aware that by including Aboriginal characters she risked being criticised for romanticising if she wrote sympathetically, or for being racist if she sounded critical’

Astley was aware that by including Aboriginal characters she risked being criticised for romanticising if she wrote sympathetically, or for being racist if she sounded critical, but in Mango she went ahead and made Bidgi Mumbler and his family the focal characters in three stories, in language which attempts to represent their Aboriginal point of view. This striking attempt in Mango to represent race relations as part of the Laffey family history and, by extension, of the national story made a strong impression on readers when the book appeared. The extreme North, in all its singularity and specificity, became, in Astley’s hands, a metaphor for the whole nation and its sense of history. Incidents of dispossession and dispersal of the indigenous population, which had been written out of official histories, were being written back in.

Women, too, were placed at the centre rather than at the periphery of national stories. As critic Julie Mullaney puts it, family history, inseparable from place, becomes a metaphor for national history or, rather, is framed by the national. Connie is ‘both archive and archivist’ of family, as she feels herself being Jessica Olive and the others. Connie recognises how the dominant national story leaves out the reality of settler women’s lives, and her narrative emphasises how the women in particular ‘embody those qualities of resistance and rebellion that mark the Laffey family’s contribution to the counter-history of settlement existence’.

With this book (her tenth), Thea Astley draws together all her strengths of language, narrative and characterisation. In the story sequence there are continuing connections among the characters, and a strong narrative line shaped towards the climax, which allows it to be read as a novel. The structure allows her to develop character only as far as is necessary to dramatise the ‘explosive moment’ of each story – and ample scope, still, to introduce plenty of her trademark characters, the ‘nutters’ and oddballs that she loves. Above all, the presiding female consciousness of Connie, a woman of her own age and sensibility, enables Astley to achieve an astonishing mixture of comedy and tragedy, satire and violence.


Astley, Thea. It’s Raining in Mango: Pictures from the Family Album, Viking, 1987

Mullaney, Julie. ‘“Passing Ghosts”: Reading the Family Album in Thea Astley’s It’s Raining in Mango and Reaching Tin River.’ Australian Studies, 16, no. 1, 2001, 23–44

Sheridan, Susan and Paul Genoni (eds), Thea Astley’s Fictional Worlds. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2006

Webby, Elizabeth. ‘Men, Women, Black, White – Astley Marks 1988’. Sydney Morning Herald June 25, 1988

Zeller, Robert. ‘Tales of the Austral Tropics’ in C.A. Cranston and Robert Ziller, eds. The Littoral Zone: Australian Contexts and their Writers. Rodopi, 2007

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