Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 18, 2020

Coda (1994), by Thea Astley, Guest review by Margaret (Meg) Broughton


It is with great pleasure that for Thea Astley Week, I am hosting a guest review of Thea Astley’s Coda (1994), by regular reader Margaret (Meg) Broughton, who loves reading, especially Australian fiction and non fiction.


Coda was to have been Thea Astley’s last novel, but fortunately for us it wasn’t.

Coda is not a feel-good novel. Kathleen the protagonist sadly knows she is not wanted. She is old, and is suffering from dementia and incontinence. Her children have dumped her into a retirement home.

The novel is a short one, divided into three parts and is less than 200 pages long. There is no real plot and it is character driven. You will not forget these characters easily, especially Kathleen.

Throughout the novel the unhappy mood of Kathleen’s life is offset by Thea Astley’s dark humor. It will make you laugh sometimes, but also make you grimace in its truthfulness.  And, Thea Astley’s harsh thoughts on marriage, children, aging and dementia also cast a critical eye on society.

The novel opens with Kathleen ‘losing her nouns’. From here, Kathleen reflects unhappily on her life and how it is acted out:

...four ages of women: bimbo, breeder, babysitter, burden.

She never wanted to be a burden.

Each section of the novel begins with a newspaper clipping highlighting the dumping of old demented people in places unknown to them, as are their own names. Also, in each part we learn more about Kathleen, and her relationships. She did experience love, once with an American. She married an Australian, Ronald, who went to find ‘his new Jerusalem’ during their uneventful time at Honaira. Later, back in Queensland with their two children Shamrock and Brian, he dies.

Her son Brian, is renamed Brain by his wife Boasie, because of his many business failures. Her daughter is Sham, (Shamrock), who could not find herself settled down to marriage with lawyer, Len. He becomes a crooked politician and is referred to as ‘Minister of Transport’. Their children join forces and sell her house to make way for a government road. Subsequently, Kathleen is dumped into the retirement home, appropriately called Passing Downs. When Kathleen is asked how she likes her room, her response is “It’s f—— awful’. Her last act as a grandmother is to go feral, she runs away from her imprisonment.

Kathleen is vague at times, and has difficulty in searching for words and her past, but she does remember Daisy, her best friend. They kept in touch from their teen year romances, to marriages and even past Daisy’s death. Kathleen in her rambling monologues, sometimes gets Daisy confused with her dog Brutus. Daisy marries a wife beater and has six children to him. ‘Whoops a Daisy’. But, like Kathleen, she learned to cope.

I didn’t like the scheming and callous Sham and Brain. And, sometimes it was also difficult to like the cynical Kathleen, though I sympathized with her, for this closure of her life.  Yet, I also admired Kathleen, for the fight in her to be independent.

The novel ends with Kathleen catching a ferry. ‘God!’ She said aloud to the world at large, to anyone who would listen. ‘What a marvelous day!’

I say what a marvelous read despite the gloomy themes. The writing is superb. I think people will be able to connect to Kathleen’s story. As I grow older, my main fear is getting dementia. I already have difficulty in remembering words!

In these Covid19 times, I can only think how distressing it is for loved ones in nursing homes, as well as for their families.

I think we can all agree on that, Margaret…

Thanks for your contribution to Thea Astley Week!


  1. Thank you again for this review, Meg, it really is a book for our times.
    Just this week, a friend told me, in great distress, about a daughter’s decision to place her father in aged care, when my friend and all her neighbours (including a nurse who managed the bathing &c) were looking after him. I don’t know the ins and outs of this, and we all know that sometimes aged care is the only option and it’s not a heartless decision. But all the same, Coda shows us the inner rage that people feel and maybe can’t express.


  2. Nursing homes seem inevitable, but I will do all I can to avoid getting put in one. I quite often imagine doing a Kathleen and making a run for it, though I must say I have complete trust in my kids, so perhaps it won’t come to that.


    • Amen to that, Bill!
      Rodney Hall wrote a very perceptive novel about an old lady doing a runner too…
      *ransacks brain*
      Love Without Hope, Goodreads says it was published 2007, I must have read it just before starting this blog.


  3. Thanks Lisa. It is a distressing time for all, when someone we love has to be placed in a nursing home. We hope our loved one will receive the best care, and I think most nursing homes and staff supply a safe haven. I am sure most people don’t want to placed in one, but some understand it is necessary. However, to give up your freedom and independence must be very difficult to do. Like Kathleen, no one wants to be a burden, but sometimes a nursing home is the only place.
    (It is appropriate that Coda follows on from your review of Girl with a Monkey. In reading Cheryl Taylor’s introduction to Thea Astley’s poetry she said “that this novel (Coda), is also a coda because it completes a theme, in the musical sense, that Thea introduced in Girl with a Monkey.” )


    • Well, from my experience, my father had faultless care here in Melbourne, and ‘disappointing’ care before that on the Gold Coast. There were factors affecting this, of course, but what his experience says to me is that there is a difference, and there ought not to be. No doubt the Aged Care Commission will sort out the issues, but it will be a waste of time and money unless a lot more funding is provided; and a lot more supervision and monitoring of everything. I’m happy to pay more taxes to make things a whole lot better than they are.


  4. Shades of King Lear…


    • Yes I suppose you could say that. Certainly a breakdown of family relationships, not that I think there ever was strong ones. And, it is cruel and awful what happens to Kathleen. Maybe if Kathleen had been consulted by Brain and Sham, the outcome could have been more acceptable to her.


      • Some of these decisions are influenced by inheritances; some are influenced by payback for past hurts.
        But mostly, I think/hope they are influenced by a desire to keep a parent safe. It isn’t easy when confronted by the issue and the reality of having power of attorney, to have clarity about quality of life v quantity of life.


  5. I cared for my father at home until he died – he had dementia and wasn’t happy, mourning for my mother, but at least he avoided a nursing home – however it took a huge toll on me. I truly fear ending up in an aged care home without relatives to check on me – I think I’d rather walk out into the desert! I have a very clear Advanced Care Directive in place, these are very important to have for everyone now, can I urge anyone here who doesn’t have one to please get one done? Your GP can keep a record on computer.

    Interesting how Astley uses so many musical references in her books, I must keep this in mind when re-reading her novels. She particularly loved jazz piano apparently, which I do as well, so I approve! Again, the combination of music and good writing/reading ability interests me,


    • I was interested to hear a doctor at one of the hospitals taking in residents from aged care homes here in Victoria, who made a veiled allusion to advanced care directives. He said that many elderly people in aged care give specific instructions about not wanting resuscitation or painful treatments to prolong life and that one of the matters they’d had to deal with as a matter of urgency on admission, was finding out what their wishes were.
      This might point to sloppy paperwork in the aged care home (amongst other egregious sins). The ACD paperwork should be provided to the hospital as a matter of course in any circumstances and in these C-19 circumstances in particular. But it might also be that getting the ACD in writing and witnessed is something that has been put off, sometimes until the person isn’t capable of doing it, so is then reliant on the next of kin doing it on their behalf. A wish expressed only verbally puts a hospital in a very difficult position…


      • My GP said an ACD was vital especially in the case of going into an aged care home, as they will keep you alive even if you have zero quality of life and are unconscious – and the medical staff appreciate knowing your wishes so they know when they can legally not treat you. It’s worth having a copy in the house for paramedics as well, apparently they usually check in the 2nd from the top kitchen drawer!

        Liked by 1 person

        • The 2nd top kitchen drawer??? But that’s where I keep my tea towels. I have to remember this if I’m ever on my own, LOL maybe make some signs pointing to my filing cabinet just in case…


  6. I’d love to comment on the difference of the ending of Coda to the ending of Reaching Tin River, but that would spoil reading Tin River for everyone – you’ll just have to read it I’m afraid!


    • I haven’t even got that one yet!
      I do miss my OpShop browsing. Each week when I went to French in Hampton, I’d spend happy time in Vinnies and the Salvos before class:)


  7. The thought of going into care terrifies me. We managed to keep my late MIL in her home until the end. My mother is still just about coping at home. And my poor Dad only lasted a few days in a care home anyway (he’d been leaving us for years). The decisions are never easy but if there was a consistency of care and a more nurturing approach to this topic I do think it would help. Certainly I never want to be a burden myself…


  8. One of my favourite novels by one of my favourite authors


    • Yes indeed. Do you have a favourite of hers?


  9. Am I the only one not terrified of going into an aged care residence when the time comes? We have made it clear to each other and to our children that this is where we are happy to go when we are not longer able to look after ourselves, even with reasonable help. My aunt, my mother in law, and now my father were or are all in age care – one in Newcastle, and two different ones here. My aunt was very happy in hers. Indeed, her children could not get her out for an outing, for a doctor’s appointment, etc. It was a very nice one I must say. We visited her there once. My later mother-in-law and my father were/are not quite so enamoured of being in aged care, but both recognise/d that that’s where they were safest, and both places were very decently run. I visit my dad pretty well every day – I miss at most one day a week – so I see what’s going on, and I am happy with his care. He is happy with his care. There’s the odd carer who’s not quite as patient as the others but they are the exception and he’d have the same issue with in-home carers. My father’s physical care needs are such that I could not care for him. By the time my Mum died he had overnight carers every night plus significant day care coming in. That is not really sustainable long term, and would have its own issues in managing it. Some nights those carers would be up three to five times to him, other nights maybe just one or two, but there’s no way I could sustain that sort of care 24/7, and maintaining my own health, I’m afraid. My father made the decision to move into care after much discussion about the options.

    For me, if I got to that point in my life – and I was still compos like my Dad, my MIL and my aunt is/were – I would be relieved to not have to care for myself anymore, to not have to prepare meals (with, very likely, sight impairment), to not have to worry about cleaners. And, I refuse to be a burden for my children. All I ask is that they help me find a decent, clean place. Most of these places have significant activities going on – some of no interest to me, like bingo – but others would interest me (like a scrabble group). But, of course it would all depend on the health conditions I had that resulted in my being there.

    I think aged care is getting a really bad wrap. I know there are some madly managed ones, but they are the ones getting the media attention. There are many very decent ones. We saw some – had had recommendations for them from families – when we were checking out a place for my Dad.

    BTW thanks very much for your review Meg. Lovely seeing you put your ideas down for us!

    (I apologise for the essay – but I am concerned about the bad wrap for the poor aged care workers. Even if we say that we are not blaming them but the system, I feel sorry about the negative looks and responses they must get when they tell people they work in aged care. They don’t deserve that. I also wonder about people’s willingness to place a big burden on their families by refusing to go into aged care when their care needs become significant. If family is happy and able to care for their older member that’s great, but people absolutely refusing to go into care makes me sad. I know there are no guarantees – and maybe my three elderly relations have been unusually lucky – but I’m hopeful that there will be good aged care still when/if my time comes!)


    • Essays are fine, Sue! (I’ve written a couple on yours too, I think…)

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Sue, I agree. I think most Nursing Homes and their staff want to help and look after people who can’t help themselves. They do a fantastic job, under difficult times. The problem for me is I don’t want to be in that position. I don’t want to be unable to help myself. I don’t want to give up my freedom or my independence. I think that is the concern of most people. I don’t want to be a burden to my children. But, I know I would rather go to a nursing home than be their responsibility. When my mum was dying I looked after for three months, – a nurse came in every day. She was then insistent that she go into care. It was her decision, and I think people want to be able to have the final say where they go..


    • Thanks Meg. I agree with what you say overall. I don’t think anyone wants to give up their freedom and independence, but I’ve seen enough old people (I’ve had a lot of nonagenarians in my life) to know that independence gives up on you eventually (if you live long enough)! No matter how independent you WANT to be, there can come a time when you just can not be so. You are not physically strong or you cannot see or hear properly or you become a bit befuddled (even if you don’t have dementia) or you just have very little energy. I’m realistic about that.

      I see people in Dad’s aged care watching movies in the little lounge area, or having a coffee in the dining area with their newspaper, or doing a jigsaw, or working on their computers in their rooms, and they have no cleaning or cooking to do. Haha. Of course they are lucky enough to have the sight and hearing to do that. (Many of course don’t have these facilities by the time they get there, and they do just sit doing little.) The downside, of course, is that there are institutional regimes, no matter how flexible the place is. But nothing in life comes without its hard bits, does it?


    • PS Your Mum sounds lovely. Decent about doing the right thing for her and the family. We had Mum here for a couple of weeks, two months before she died, before we knew she was dying, when we thought she just needed some R&R. That was a special time.


  11. […] Meg Broughton shared a guest review of Coda here at ANZLitLovers; […]


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