Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Tournament of Books [September 23]

In the wake of the recent debate about the paucity of prize-winning female Australian authors, and the mooted establishment of a new literary award (The Stella Prize) specifically for women, Meanjin literary magazine is running a Tournament of Books to promote great books by Australian women.

I was invited to review two books from a shortlist of fifteen chosen by the Meanjin panel and ‘rank’ them:

‘A Kindness Cup’ by Thea Astley Vs ‘The Secret River’ by Kate Grenville

In the acknowledgements to Thea Astley’s novel ‘A Kindness Cup’ she mentions an ‘incident’ at The Leap near Mackay in Queensland which provided the ‘impetus’ for her book. Impetus is far too polite a word to describe the inferno of rage that appears to have inspired this novel. And for ’incident’, read Aboriginal massacre.

The novel was first published in 1974, just a couple of years after Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam established the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Land Rights and a year before he handed back some Gurindji land in the Northern Territory to its traditional owners. Gurindji, like many other indigenous groups, had been dispossessed, massacred then exploited as free labour over the previous decades. At last these stories were beginning to be spoken and written about by European Australians.

My copy of ‘A Kindness Cup’ is now thirty-five years old and it fell apart, one page at a time, as I re-read it for Meanjin. This literal disintegration became a metaphor for the story printed on the yellowing pages. The main character, Dorahy, is invited back to the (fictional) QLD town of The Taws where several decades earlier he witnessed the results of an act of white male mob violence. There is to be a twenty-year town reunion and Dorahy, a former schoolteacher in The Taws, can’t keep away. He is still seeking justice and the quest is sending him mad.

Dorahy hovers around the partying townsfolk like a blowfly circling a pack of dogs, goading the perpetrators and trying to enlist support for his cause. But in this seaside town the leaders of the pack have since been knighted. One dismisses the massacre as the town’s ‘growing pains’. The present blurs with the past as Dorahy’s mind obsessively rehearses the events leading up to the crime. One of the victims, Lunt, whose sympathy for his Aboriginal neighbours nearly cost him his life, is now a recluse. As Dorahy wages his righteous campaign, Lunt’s accommodation with the past and Dorahy’s inability to let it go are distilled down to a New Testament versus Old Testament view of humanity.

Astley’s prose is rich with poetry, especially when she’s describing the alienating Australian landscape where ‘the sea still burns its blue acid’ and ‘the terrible brown and green distances eat away at the compass outside.’ Occasionally she over-reaches and the images jar: ‘Gracie lies there and in a conglomerate of memories she inspects husbands one and two’.

There is a cast of fully fleshed-out white characters: Boyd the kindly newspaper editor who is sucked into the wake of Dorahy’s fury; Gracie the returning opera diva who sweats in the tropical heat and yearns for her younger, Sylph-like self. Most of the Aboriginal characters, though, are shadow puppets flitting wordlessly around the edges of the white man’s sub-conscious.

Embodied in the character of Dorahy, the author’s rage carries the reader along with immense energy. It’s the kind of anger that so frightened critics of the ‘black armband view of history’ three decades later, they refused to utter the word sorry. Astley demands our empathy; in the end, though, she rewards us with despair.

Thirty years after the publication of ‘A Kindness Cup’, Kate Grenville traversed similar territory in ‘The Secret River’. Like Astley she drew on some historical facts in creating the story of William Thornhill, an English convict transported to Sydney Cove in 1806 where he makes a new life with his growing family on the banks of the Hawkesbury River.
Thornhill falls in love with the Australian landscape and, more importantly, with the seductive pleasures of land ownership. But when his ambitions are challenged by the indigenous owners of the land he calls Thornhill’s Point, tragedy becomes inevitable.

Grenville’s canvas is wider than Astley’s. She takes us all the way from Thornhill’s childhood in London, a life of constant hunger with ‘the gnawing feeling in his belly, the flat taste in his mouth, the rage that there was never enough’, to his old age as a wealthy colonialist whose ‘children wore boots and (who) was never without a chest of the best Darjeeling in the house.’ Her cast includes some of the same ‘types’ found in Astley’s novel: Thornhill’s neighbour Blackwood who is sympathetic to the local indigenous tribes; the bullies Saggity and Smasher who see the ‘savages’ as less than human. But the Aboriginal characters are also given distinct personalities, and thereby dignity.

As in ‘A Kindness Cup’, the fulcrum of Grenville’s narrative is an Aboriginal massacre described in horrific, moment-by-moment detail. Re-reading it five years after I first encountered ‘The Secret River’, the sheer horror of this scene once again left me weeping with rage and sorrow.

Describing a novel as having a ‘project’ is a risky business, but it seems to me both these authors wanted their readers to confront and vicariously experience the shameful history of the colonisers’ dealings with indigenous Australians. Both are critical of the brutal patriarchal worldview that defined land as territory to be conquered, just as you might conquer a woman (‘Ah you bitch country’, says one of Astley’s characters, sucking a pinch of dust from his fingers, ‘I love you’) and Aborigines as vermin to be eradicated.

In ‘A Kindness Cup’, Dorahy’s rage against this worldview is disabling and, in the end, futile. Thea Astley’s own worldview, it seems, is a dystopian one.

‘The Secret River’, though, ends with the image of William Thornhill scanning the cliff tops through his eye glass, searching the forest for ‘a man as dark as the scorched trunk of a stringybark’. Thornhill has been changed by the cruelty he has both witnessed and perpetrated – he is sorry – and in his regret there is the promise of redemption.

Kate Grenville gets my vote this time but PLEASE read them both.