Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 22, 2020

Beachmasters (1985), by Thea Astley

1985, ALS Gold Medal (1986)

Beachmasters is a surprising novel: it’s the first time I’ve read an Astley set outside Australia, and it’s the first time I’ve seen her (or any other Australian author) tackle the issue of colonialism in our region.  It’s an appraisal of a failed rebellion in a thinly disguised colonial Vanuatu, and while it has its ‘Astleyan’ challenges, they are not the usual cultural and linguistic allusions.  It’s the best Astley I’ve ever read. Yes.

And yet, at Goodreads there is one brief (three-line) review describing it as Astley not at her best, though it’s Astley, so it’s very good.  There are seven three-star ratings; and less than 20 who’ve marked it ‘to read’.  One of those is someone who follows this blog, so #FingersCrossed I can persuade him to pick up the book…

Some background first, lest you think Astley is having a laugh in her portrayal of the shambolic administrative arrangements for her fictional island of Kristi.  Vanuatu was, for most of the 20th century, governed jointly by historic foes, France and Britain.

Called the British-French Condominium, it was a unique form of government, with separate governmental systems that came together only in a joint court. The condominium’s authority was extended in the Anglo-French Protocol of 1914, although this was not formally ratified until 1922. Melanesians were barred from acquiring the citizenship of either power and were officially stateless; to travel abroad they needed an identity document signed by both the British and French resident commissioners.

Many called the condominium the “Pandemonium” because of the duplication of laws, police forces, prisons, currencies, education and health systems. Overseas visitors could choose between British law, which was considered stricter but with more humane prisons, or French law, which was considered less strict, but with much worse prison conditions. In their book, Vanuatu by Jocelyn Harewood and Michelle Bennett, is this memorable passage referring to the 1920s: “Drunken plantation owners used to gamble… using the `years of labour’ of their Melanesian workers as currency. Islanders used to be lined up against the wall, at the mercy of their employers’ dice. Long after America’s Wild West was tamed, Vila was the scene of the occasional gunfight and public guillotining.”  (Wikipedia, viewed 22/8/20)

The ‘Coconut War’ (which I vaguely remember being reported with mild hilarity by the Australian press) was a brief and mostly non-violent rebellion on the island of Espiritu Santo which although militarily ‘crushed’ resulted in Vanuatu’s independence in 1980.  The revolt was led by a charismatic politician of mixed European, Melanesian and Polynesian descent, called Jimmy Stevens a.k.a. Moses. Wikipedia tells us that at his subsequent trial, which led to his imprisonment for 14 years…

…it was revealed that Stevens and Nagriamel [his political movement] received US$250,000 from the American-based Phoenix Foundation, a libertarian group that previously attempted to establish an independent tax-haven state in Abaco Island, the Bahamas in 1973.

[BTW The Americans got what they wanted.  Wikipedia’s article about the Vanuatu economy tells us it’s now a ‘flag of convenience’ country, and a tax haven, *and* Vanuatu sells citizenship for about $150,000, and its passports allow visa-free travel throughout Europe.  (Who knew??)

Wikipedia also tells us that the trial also established that the French government had secretly supported Stevens in his efforts.

This is wonderful material for a novel, and it’s amazing that only Thea Astley thought of doing it!


The prologue is a bit off-putting.  Browsers in a bookshop may well have put it back on the shelf.  I couldn’t make sense of it until after I’d finished the book.  It’s written in an Italicised creole and it includes sentences like this:

And, too, oh in this litany, pray, your eyes east-west, pray for Hedmasta Woodful, now and at the hour of the changing, and for the Bonsers, mechanics of more than boat engines, for Planter Duchard and family, and above all, for the big man, the yeremanu, Tommy Narota, part Kristi, part Tongan, part Devon, who has taken on his new native name, abandoning that of his sea-faring adventurer daddy, along with his ceremonial dress of Bipi fringed tablecloth and lace antimacassar loin-wrapper.  (p. 1)

What were Penguin’s editors thinking when they allowed Astley to get away with this, on the crucial first page?  Of course, she was formidable…

Fortunately, it’s only one page long, and the rest of the novel is narrated by a comprehensible omniscient third person with a wry sense of humour and a compassionate anti-colonial view of proceedings.  There is a sprinkling of what Astley explains in her Acknowledgements is a South Pacific pidgin which she calls Seaspeak, with dialect words and custom references drawn from a number of areas in the one island group.  (Karen Lamb’s bio tells me that in 1983 Astley had made a research trip to the New Hebrides i.e. Vanuatu but is otherwise not much interested in this novel.)  But the language games of Beachmasters are a good deal easier to interpret than Astley’s usual cultural and linguistic allusions, of which there are few. (Unless I missed them, of course).

The novel is framed around the politics of well-past-its-use-by-date colonialism and its climax is the rebellion, but it’s the character of Gavi who holds the book together.  He discovers as a teenager that he has a mixed-race background similar to the charismatic (but naïve) Tommy Narota, and to his embarrassment Gavi learns that his classmates don’t believe in his mother’s French identity, even if she, perhaps, believes it herself.  Astley portrays the racism of this petty society in all her trademark ferocity, not least within Gavi himself.  Confused by his father’s obfuscations, he becomes an acolyte of Tommy Narota and gets mixed up in the cynicism of Bonser’s covert role in facilitating the rebellion.  This novel is a warning about radicalisation long before anybody knew what it might come to mean.

Gavi’s teacher Père Leyroud tries to counsel him.  In an allusion to the differences in French and British law, he canes Gavi with six strikes, not five as it would have been had he punished the boy in English, and Gavi has never forgotten that the ironic taps on his hand were spelling out the word v-é-r-i-t-é: truth.  It is to the priest that he goes to unravel the truth of his racial heritage, but he doesn’t want to hear Leyroud’s truth that it makes no difference. No ultimate difference.  Gavi already knows differently from the scorn of his classmates.

Other characters represent certain types.  The colonial Brits and the pretensions of their wives are obvious targets:

Whenever Assistant Resident Commissioner Trembath saw a black face, he instantly launched into pidgin, believing it to be one of those enduring symbols of colonial power.  one spoke to them.  Oh indeed one spoke but in a bastardised version of one’s precious tongue, placing them, old chap, in the position of using baby-talk back.  Frightfully funny, really.  Of course they couldn’t cope with anything more than baby-talk.  Only the simplest thoughts going on.  (p.110)

Trembath always speaks to his driver Joseph in Seaspeak, and Joseph speaks back to him in perfect English.

But Astley is too honest a novelist merely to caricature these types.  Mrs Trembath is a fool, but the indignity of her undoing is compassionately rendered.  Astley has less patience with Colonel Mercet who despises Trembath’s efforts with French and almost choked whenever he had to listen.  His perfidy is made clear:

As for Colonel Mercet, non-communication with his British half suited him perfectly.  For four years, now, he had plotted an ill-laid course of Gallic takeover, encouraging a group of shonky developers from the States with roots originally sprouted in a fundamentalist religion.  Born again, they declared, wisely, for profit.  The Salamander Corporation, with the Colonel’s connivance, planned to carve up great tracts of Kristi and turn it into a mini-Florida.  (p.111)

Headmasta Woodful rises to the occasion.  When his morning starts with distant shouts and missing staff, he suspects it’s another ‘fright-jump’, another of these moments of sudden political passion that decorated his years on the islands like painted beads.  (p.65) He’s never fitted in despite his best efforts with students and expats, and for him, in all the hot stinking sweating years he had been striding from house to classroom in his mad belief in service through a wife’s death and a daughter’s absence in a Sydney boarding-school, there is only the platonic friendship of Madam Guichet, island jetsam abandoned by a lugger master, her grey hair ashake form too much morning bottle. He refuses to join the exodus of Brits on the beach as they wait for promised rescue and turns the school into a refuge for frightened Islanders. And it is Headmasta Woodful who, at first not realising exactly what Gavi has done tries to comfort him for the evil his folly has unleashed:

Under cover of back-seat chatter he said to Gavi, without turning his head, as if he were convincing himself as well, ‘This day, Gav, this year, next year and the one after that and even beyond that, they’ll all string out like old Lorimer’s.  No harder, no softer than they are for any of us.  Remember that.  You’ll live through them, as he did.

‘You don’t understand,’ the boy said.  ‘I helped to take them from him.’ His voice was so low Woodful had to incline his head to hear.

‘Took what?’

‘His years.’

That stopped him.  He couldn’t reply to that, to such self-slaughter.  He drove in silence for nearly a mile.  Finally, ‘I don’t know what happened today,’ he said, ‘any more than you’ve told me.  Perhaps you did, indirectly. ‘ He heard the boy gasp with the pain of accusation. ‘Soothers won’t help.  Soft things.  If you did, if that is what you believe, then admit it and accept it.  That’s the only thing and the hardest.  Accepting.’ He fumbled around in his mind.  Nothing seemed right.  ‘You’ll have learned not to make excuses. That’s one of the best things you can ever discover.’

He could hear Gavi crying, not loudly, but insistently as if the tears would never stop.

‘The main thing,’ Woodful went on, turning the car off the coast road and heading for the school, ‘is to be sorry.  Beyond that what can you do?  Oh it will hurt for a long time but time does other things besides pass.  Sorrow is one thing, Gav.  Regret’s another.  And regret is useless.’ (p.147)

This is a gentle, generous side of Astley the author, with words of wisdom that sound as if they are straight from the heart, and hard won.

Update Feb 2022: This title is now available through the Untapped Australian Literary Heritage Project.  It can be borrowed electronically through libraries and can be purchased in digital form from eBook sellers.  For details visit the Untapped website. 

Author: Thea Astley
Title: Beachmasters.
Cover art: Bill Farr
Publisher: Penguin Australia, 1985
ISBN: 0140079122, pbk., 185 pages
Source: OpShop find, $1.00


  1. That prologue is certainly off-putting! This sounds like a rather complicated Astley – and she’s right out of her normal sphere of tropical Queensland isn’t she. For some reason this has never appealed to me enough to try reading it, yet you say it’s the best of hers you have read. What would you say makes it the best Lisa, out of interest? I’m certainly open to giving anything by Astley a go. I don’t know much about Vanuatu I must admit.


    • Well, I knew nothing about Vanuatu, and I only remember the event the novel’s based on when I read about it at Wikipedia.
      Why do I like it so much? Firstly, because it’s not so scornful and bitter even though she has her targets, and secondly because it’s about a bigger canvas. I like books that tackle issues rather than domestic situations, and although this is a coming-of-age novel of sorts and an exploration of identity, it’s really much more than that. Plus, it made me realise yet again how little I know about our own region…


  2. Sounds like a real find and a balancing view to share on GR. It reminds me the experience of reading through Maryse Condé’s works, as her own awareness rises and as she begins to have new experiences that expand that awareness and encounters issues her fiction takes you on a journey outside her land, but always in someway connected.


    • Yes, exactly. Perhaps because I’m bingeing on Astley for this week, I notice the emotional growth in the novel. You know how often debut novels are often dealing with the author’s own issues, and sometimes they’re self-indulgent and dishing out payback for past hurts… well, Astley did a lot of that and not just in her debut novel. This one is wiser and kinder.


      • The growth of the author coming through their work, precisely.


        • Mind you, she reverted to bitter and twisted in her last novel! I’ve got her second last still to read, so it will be interesting to see what that’s like. It’s called The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, and I’m still deciding whether to read it now for Thea Astley Week or to save it for another day…


  3. Was Coda her last novel Lisa? I don’t remember it as bitter and twisted but I could be wrong…

    I remember I enjoyed The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow but now can’t remember it at all well which is annoying! I enjoy all of Astleys books although I know she has a fair bit of unhappiness and bitterness – I still love their sarcasm and witty humour! I think you sound a bit more guarded about her novels in your comment or am I misreading you (might be due to the cold here!)

    I was surprised by her insight into what happens to an unloved girl who never received praise, in Reaching Tin River – I hadn’t credited Astley with so much empathy. I think she must have been an extraordinarily complicated, difficult, and talented woman – and I suspect it takes all of this to create the novels that she has written. Having said that, I’m sure I’d steer a wide berth around her!


    • No, Drylands is her last, and it’s the first one I read. But even though she is pretty savage in it, I still liked it and went on to read her others that won the MF (and of course wouldn’t be doing this ‘week’ if I didn’t think she was an amazing writer).
      But An Item from the Late News really does feature a very bitter and twisted character, and of course we know the character is not the author and all that, but still!
      I need to source Tin River, and also A Boatload of Home Folk which Karen Lamb says should never have been published…


  4. Darn, i haven’t got the Lamb book to check with – it’s on order at our library because I’ve requested it. Why should Home Folk not have been written, or will it spoil the story? Do tell…

    Out of genuine interest at your – and everyone’s – opinion, our large regional library has just three Astleys in stock, and the Lamb on order – does Astley appeal to only a small audience, did her novels not receive sufficient publicity, are they ever studied at schools, or what is the reason for such a major writer with 4 MF awards to be so disregarded? Or all of the above reasons? I can’t imagine suggesting her at my book club for example – I doubt she would appeal to all but a couple of people there (and we are doing The Lucky Galah next month, don’t get me started – a bird narrator..oh no!


    • p191: “If there is a book by Astley that ought not have been published, it is Boat Load. It extended the life of her Blow Natives couple, making a doomed marriage and other dismal partnerships once again centre stage. It is, to quote a publisher’s reader, ‘ a study in unhappiness and frustration’ and a ‘depressing, unlikeable book’. Yet the book passed through the hands of a significant number of people in-house — odd in itself given the author was by now certainly well known at A&R. Possibly [Beatrice] David didn’t like the book either but felt too compromised by her past support for the author to say so, and she might also have been aware of Astley’s fragility in the face of criticism.” The contract was signed in 1968 and published the same year.


  5. Straight after my post I wondered why wouldn’t I recommend Astley to my book group, who are delightful and bright people – and i think it’s because I think Astley’s humour is a bit of an acquired taste. I can understand people not liking it. I however can get a laugh out loud at Astey’s barbed humour, provided I’m not on the receiving end of it!

    I have brain freeze from this weather and all the snow so I had better stop now and get a hot cuppa!


    • It’s been pretty bleak here too!


  6. I follow your blog and have marked Beachmasters as ‘to read’, so I’m guessing that I’m the person you were referring to above. You don’t need to persuade me to read Beachmasters as I love Astley’s work and intend to read all of it! However, your review may have convinced me to read it sooner rather than later as it wasn’t at the top of my notional ‘Astleys to be read’ list. Thanks!


    • Hello Richard! How wonderful to meet another enthusiast… I hope you will like it as much as I did:)


  7. Hi Lisa, I have not read Beachmasters, but like all Astley other stories I have read, I know it would affect me. Emotionally not happy plots, but cruel and sad ones. Her wit and characters relate to the life as it was in the past, or as it is today.


    • Of all the Astleys, I think this one is going to be the hardest to get hold of. Penguin don’t seem to do reissues of old treasures like this one.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My copy came from an op shop.


        • So did mine. A&U do print-on-demand of their old titles, and Text Classics are legendary but Penguin Random House is maybe too big to care?


  8. My library doesn’t have a copy, sadly.


    • That doesn’t surprise me. When they cull, they cull books that haven’t been borrowed in a while, and they get sold off or trashed. Next time I get an email from Penguin, I will try to remember if they have any plans to offer print-on-demand, but I bet their every-book-must-be-profitable model won’t allow for it.


  9. […] Beachmasters (1985) by Thea Astley […]


  10. […] Beachmasters (1985) by Thea Astley […]


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