Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 13, 2015

The Slow Natives, by Thea Astley #BookReview

The Slow Natives 2I do love a book that’s as rich and complex as Thea Astley’s The Slow Natives.  Her characterisation can be simply devastating:

Bernard had met Miss Trumper before.  Six times?  Seven?  He was not sure, but she could have given him a total of minutes devastatingly accurate, a summation of trade, an analysis (false) of looks exchanged or emphases (misread).  Her frantic hands automatically began to twitch curls into provocative positions and one forefinger, desperate digit, rubbed the corner of her mouth to erase the trapped carmine grease she knew from experience would be there.  Then one hand stroked pleats, and then pushed at puffs of hair at her nape.  Her hair-style had not changed since she wowed them during the war.  And she went, naked as birth, across the concrete veranda to the man who had never yet really seen her.

‘Hullo’, said hearty Bernard, all pipe and chuckles.  ‘What splendid weather for lotus-eating! And how are you?’  (p.95)

In The Slow Natives, her fourth novel and the second of four to win the Miles Franklin Award, Astley is writing about an era of social change where not everyone has caught the bus.  It is the middle sixties, and in the fictional town of Condamine the role of women is still circumscribed even though the sexual revolution is stirring.  Astley’s post-menopausal married women are just that, and only that, and her unmarried women like Miss Trumper are oddities.  It is men who have agency…

And it is men who dominate the narrative voice.  The story begins with Bernard Leverson and his travails at a wearisome slide night.  (Remember slide nights, anyone?  Such torture!) Bernard has a wife, Iris, who is having a tepid affair with Gerald Seabrook, which is a matter of indifference to Bernard but not to his son Keith.  Keith is adrift in the stormy waters of adolescence, and spends his judgemental time baiting his parents.  Through his eyes we see the damage done to the young by adult betrayals and indifference; through his father’s eyes we see the banality of a long marriage and an insipid career.

The characterisation of women in this novel is quite striking when one remembers Astley’s feminism.  Iris is an empty shell with nothing much to do in her son’s teenage years, and apart from some shrill accusations late in the novel she is voiceless.  Miss Trumper, an unmarried teacher of piano, is wracked with guilt about a long-ago abortion and as we see from Astley’s cruel pen in the excerpt above and from later plot developments, desperate in her sexual frustration.  Her friend Miss Paradise is a jealous spinster, unintentionally mocked by Bernard when in a slip of the tongue he addresses her as Miss Paramour.  The characterisation of these women remind me of Patrick White at his savage best.

Then there are the nuns at the convent.  Events conspire to tax the patience of Sister Beatrice, who in exasperation accuses her Mother Superior of being ‘hard’.  Mother St Jude concedes that this is so, because the vocation demands an atmosphere denuded of emotional relationships except for that great familial one with God.  The younger nuns find themselves in competition for Bernard’s approval, so much so that Sister Matthew runs away from the convent in parallel with Keith running away from home.  Both are more than bruised by the experience.

The nuns are not the only Church people behaving badly.  Bernard, a Protestant, is bemused by Catholicism and the demands it makes of its adherents.  Father Douglas Lingard, trapped in an existential crisis, is (like Sister Beatrice) bullied by a tyrannical superior, Monsignor Connolly.  Human kindness is the only salve.  Summoned at night by Miss Trumper, he finds himself preferring Father Lake’s enjoyment of the scandal to his own barren experience of God:

…’Do you think she knows something about Sister Matthew? Why she went?  I must confess, Doug, the excitement of the scandal has done me a world of good.’
‘That proves what I’ve always said, we feed on each other’s misfortunes’.
‘Shouldn’t I fight it?’
Lingard laughed.
‘You’re honest.  That’s the main thing.  I cannot bear the long sanctimonious clucking face.  See you in about an hour.  God bless.’

If He could be bothered, he would have added.

Yet he himself bothered now, about some fragile plea through a courtesy he could not shake off, no matter how his soul corroded within, and each hour, of which each action seemed a deadly explicable second rusted, piled up its uselessness.  Out of courtesy too, he thought, I turn in the gate, gently reclasp the latch, pad down between hydrangea bushes to the front elkhorned veranda as much a stereotype of colonial living as steep galvanised roofing and ornamental timbering on gates.

Something scrubbed, something painful about the house hesitated with him as he heard Japanese wind-bells make glistening sounds above the plop-plop of an end tap weeping into a pot of maiden-hair.  The door opened on Miss Trumper buckled into the armour of a Sunday suit, backing away, but still in control.  He examined her face with interest.  It was narrow and nervous and in the eyes was that frightening honesty that preludes disaster.  (p. 177)

The only bright, confident and happy female in the novel is a minor character, Eva Kastner, a young pianist who tackles her piano exam pieces with a serious and restrained savagery.  She has an adult ease of manner that left oldsters fish-gaping at her poise and she flirts carelessly with her examiner, Bernard.  It comes as no surprise that Mother St Jude wants her to continue her musical studies elsewhere.  A girl’s behaviour matters more than her talent in the world Astley is depicting, but the reader can sense that for Eva’s generation, things may be different.

For Bernard, trapped in a sterile marriage much as the priests and nuns are trapped in their celibate version of family, hope lies only in his relationship with his errant son, and in the terror of the nights where Keith is missing, his yearning for the boy’s love is all that matters:

All I want, all I will ever want, is the warmth of my son, our mutual toleration, for his running away has at last convinced me of his love. (p.195)

The Slow Natives is a literary novel, rich in metaphor and uncompromising in the demands it makes of its readers.  For me, there is no question that it is worth the effort…

If you enjoy Astley’s novels, do find yourself a copy of Karen Lamb’s recent biography Thea Astley, inventing her own weather (see my review).

PS That splendid book cover design is by Ruth Lowe (1923-2011).

Author: Thea Astley
Title: The Slow Natives
Publisher: Angus & Robertson, 1965, first edition
ISBN: None
Personal copy

Availability

Try your library, the Op Shops, or Brotherhood Books.

 

 


Responses

  1. Not important but Condamine is a real town, out past Dalby. Pop 426 according to Wikipedia and

    • You know, I thought it was, I should have looked it up….

  2. Yes, you’re right Bill. As a Queenslander I can confirm it. And Lisa, I;m just reading the biography now and am LOVING it. I know you’ve reviewed it, but will read it (and link to it) after I’ve done mine. I’m just up to when she’s writing the Well-dressed Explorer and writes to her father for some information. He writes back saying he wishes she didn’t use real place names and explaining where Condamine was so apparently she did, or was planning to, use Condamine in that novel too.

    Slow natives was the novel that brought Thea Astley to my attention. I still haven’t read it, but I remember Mum having it on the bookshelf. Her cover, as I recollect, though, was the 1966 Sun Books edition. The one you show here is gorgeous.

    • It’s a brilliant bio, yes! One of the best I’ve read, and I’m sure that there are ideas from it that have influenced my reading of this novel, especially her somewhat ambivalent attitudes re women!
      There’s also a lovely brightly coloured UQP edition which I had until I finally found myself this first edition one for my collection. But I love this one, it captures the modernist style of writing and the focus on human relationships. Good old A&R!

      • Yes, it does. It’s really gorgeous. And yes, what I’m loving about the biography is that it’s capturing the Thea Astley that I thought I knew and filling in the gaps, explaining why she was who she was. A really fascinating woman.

        • It’s the contradictions that make her so interesting. And whoa! that mother of hers! Have you got to the bit where she sends back Thea’s first novel? Amazing…

          • Yes, all marked up re anything not in keeping with her religion.

            • I don’t know whether I was just more alert to it because of reading the bio, but it seems to me that religious life is more of an issue in The Slow Natives.

  3. I plan to read some Thea Astley for the Aus Women Writers Challenge (and for general enjoyment too, of course!). It’s been a long time since I read Drylands… I have A Descent for Gossips ready to go and would also like to read The Slow Natives so I really pleased to see your review.

    • That’s great:) I am sure you will enjoy them. A Descant is brilliant, and Drylands is Astley at her acerbic best IMO.
      I was lucky, I was down at Diversity Books one day (before they switched to being just online) and there was a whole pile of them in Penguin, all lined up in a row, Someone must have been a fan and then had to have a tidy-up, I guess. Anyway, I have two left, I think…
      It’s nice to have them to look forward to:)

  4. I have this one on the shelf along with a number of others from the author. Sounds good…

    • Ah, I hope I’ve provoked you into reading one, I would love your take on any one of Astley’s novels!

      • I’ve read one..just can’t remember the title.

        • Don’t you hate that?! I get really cross with myself when I can’t remember a book …

          • I’d have to go back over all the plots to find out which one.


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