What I loved: It’s Raining in Mango by Thea Astley
As 2013 will see the introduction of the inaugural Stella Prize, the first literary prize for Australian women writers, I feel compelled to revisit one of my favourite Australian authors.
Despite winning four Miles Franklin Awards – as many as Tim Winton and more than any other writer, male or female – Thea Astley’s novels have never reached an audience as widespread as the likes of Winton or Peter Carey, who won the award three times. (Incidentally, Astley shared two of her Miles Franklin wins with a man, the only two times the award has been shared in its history.) Sadly, most of Astley’s books have long been out of print, though thankfully a few selected titles were returned last year through Allen & Unwin. Only one of her Miles Franklin award-winners is available (Slow Natives, which is a print on demand title) whereas each of Tim Winton’s prize winners are still in print.
Astley was a prolific writer, and before her death in 2004 she had published fifteen novels and two short-story collections. It’s Raining in Mango was her tenth novel, and its relative stylistic simplicity may explain why it is still available. Published in 1987, it tells the story of four generations of the Laffey family in far north Queensland.
Each of the family member’s lives intersect in some way with the history of Australia itself, from the murderous settlement, the gold rush and the Depression to the Stolen Generation, World War II and the hippie movement of the 1970s. But It’s Raining in Mango is far from a celebration of Australian history or a heroic family epic. Published in the lead-up to the Bicentennial celebrations, Astley uses the particular failings of each member of the Laffeys to parody the failure of the popular narrative of Australian history.
Astley has cited Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers as influences on her writing. Of McCullers, she has said that ‘she writes with tenderness and sympathy for the oddball. I have sympathy for the oddball.’ The Laffeys are most definitely a family of oddballs, filled with strong-willed and intelligent women and sensitive but often misguided male characters. The landscape of northern Queensland is a character unto itself and the sound of thudding mangos is a regular backdrop to the conversations.
Astley has also said she relates stylistically to Patrick White and credits him with teaching her to ‘look at the essence of things [and to use] ordinary words in strange metaphysical juxtapositions’. Astley loves to play with language and particularly favours using grammatical terminology in unexpected ways to comic effect.
It’s a shame that her final novel, the Miles Franklin Award-winning Drylands, is out of print. The subtitle of Drylands is ‘a book for the world’s last reader’ and her narrator (an ex-bookshop manager) despairs that people are no longer reading books that matter. Written 12 years after It’s Raining in Mango, her last novel revisits many of the same themes, particularly that of violence against women and Indigenous people. Drylands is a darker book and perhaps more subtle in its message than her previous novels. I can only hope that this year’s Stella Prize will bring a renewed focus on Australian women writers and that we will see more of Astley’s novels returning to the shelves.
Kara Nicholson is currently completing a masters in environmental studies and spends her time reading novels to avoid doing any of the actual study part.