June, 2011: I bought It's Raining In Mango (1987), by Thea Astley, from the Anglican Church Book Sale in Cowra for 50c (also the Readers' Digest Guide To Needlecraft, $1). Back in 1996, when my novel The Showgirl And The Brumby was a finalist in the Vogels Award, one of the judges describe my novel as having "flashes of Thea Astley". I thought it was about time I read one of her novels, to see what I was a bit like.
I'm afraid to say I'm glad S&B had only "flashes" of Thea Astley, rather than long stretches, and I hope that by novel number three (the one I'm working on tomorrow), I have completely extinguished any trace of her at all. The worst thing is that I can see what the judge was talking about: colourful language, a strong Australian flavour, clunky plot, and the vague sense that the author is trying to say something serious. Here's a bit of her colourful, clunky language that I found by opening at random:
Looks rippled between them. One of the girls - Flute! - spluttered with laughter that sounded rude.
Will's face became an interrogation mark. "Did I say something?"
"Grass," Bo explained kindly. "It's pot. Dope." He grinned rather stupidly. "Marijuana."
"Oh," said Will stiffly, "of course. I've heard the term."
Even in that short exchange, we can see how Astley has to poke and prod the story along, poke and prod the characters to play their parts, using a superfluity of adverbs, and exaggerating moods and expressions to make sure the reader doesn't miss what's going on. There were a few Aboriginal characters; as I'm not Aboriginal, and I'm of my generation (rather than Astley's), I'm genuinely uncomfortable with a non-Aboriginal novelist writing a few awkward passages from an Aboriginal character's point of view. If the passages had been good, I probably wouldn't have thought anything of it! Here's an excerpt from one part that made me cringe:
She bin chase that buggy two miles till one of the police he ride back on his horse an shout at her an when she wouldn take no notice she bin run run run an he gallop after her an hit her one two, cracka cracka, with his big whip right across the face so the pain get all muddle with the cryin and she run into the trees beside the track where he couldn follow.
The only part I really liked was reclusive Will's ill-fated love for the beautiful hippie boy, Buckle, about forty years his junior. Flashes of Death In Venice. It's an interesting description of a man who represses his gayness, eschews human relationships, sinks his energy into his huge garden, then, in his sixties, falls violently in love, and experiences for the first time all the humiliation and pain that comes with unrequited love. He finds it unbearable. His sister, Connie, understands what's going on:
[Connie says:] "Sixty years of passivity, Will. Well, it wasn't even that, was it? More like indifference."
"And that's the way I'd like it to go on. If it could. Right to then end. I don't like what's happening inside me. It's as if all my nerve centres have been wired up again and wrong. Hell, Con, I don't want to go on like this."
I'll be giving It's Raining In Mango to Glebe Vinnies, and I bet they mark it up by about six-hundred percent.