Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 26, 2020

The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, by Thea Astley

[This first paragraph was edited 27/8/20, with thanks to Carmel Bird.]

I’d love to know who  I’m grateful to author Carmel Bird who has tracked down the artist who painted the cover image on the 1996 Viking hardback first edition of The Multiple Effects of RainshadowThat image The painting is called ‘Emerging’ and it’s by Margery Watsford who painted it for the cover of the book.  Her shadowy Indigenous figures in the landscape are a perfect allusion to the content of Thea Astley’s penultimate novel whereas the Penguin paperback which followed in 1997 gives the wrong impression altogether.  A rainshadow is a dry area on the leeward side of mountains which block the passage of rain.  Farming in Australian areas of rainshadow is a heartbreaking business when only neighbours on the other side of the mountain receive drought-breaking rains.  Areas in rainshadow are desiccated deserts, withered, dried out, incapable of nourishing life and growth.

Like the characters in this novel.

The story fictionalises a real event on Palm Island:

In the little hours of a January morning in 1930, on an island off the Queensland coast, a man goes berserk with a rifle and a box of gelignite. Is he evil? Or crazy? His violence is in fact a mirror for the brutality of Australian life – and is a dim reflection at that, in a country where atrocities by whites against blacks are so ingrained few question them.

The effects of the rampage ripple out from the island to link the fates of those who witnessed it, across the north and down through the decades. It is a time when silence in the face of tyranny is at its loudest. When allegiance to English niceties is confounded by the landscape and by the weather. And change is a slow wind that brings little real difference.

Thea Astley at her crusading best, brings this event to life through multiple perspectives over a chronology of ensuing decades.  The book begins with Manny Cooktown, the only Indigenous narrator, whose bitter first person voice is interleaved among the others. Manny is the one who puts an end to the madness after being armed by administrators skulking in safety. As always there is a search for a scapegoat, and Manny is put on trial on the mainland, away from his wife and children.

There are two women whose narrative is also first person — intimate, confiding and scornful: very Astley.  Mrs Curthoys is a widow who makes a living as a landlady on the island, hosting the various administrators of what is essentially a penal colony for innocent Indigenous men, women and children.  She has two daughters, for whom she has social ambitions: Leonie narrates part of the story in years long after the incident.   The other voices are all examples of the ineffectual, morally complicit Whites, and they are distanced from the reader by third person narration: Gerald Morrow, the failed author and incompetent foreman who is depicted on the 1997 Penguin cover in his craven escape from the island during the violence;  Mr Vine, yet another of Astley’s misfit schoolteachers isolated by his intellect, and defeated by his attempts to teach a classical education to the boorish sons of the wannabe gentry. Like others in the Astley pantheon, he marries imprudently out of loneliness.  (Marriage is, in this novel, an institution which meets no one’s needs.) Father Donellan is a well-meaning but useless priest, defeated in his attempts to ameliorate conditions for the Indigenous people herded onto the island and treated abominably by the supervisors who succeeded Captain Brodie, who, for all his manifold flaws, at least was fond of the poor devils even as he treated them like children with very little potential.

Captain Brodie’s voice, in the middle of the book, is painful to hear.  The atrocity takes place at the beginning of the book; the reader knows what there is to know about the facts of the matter.  But Astley shows us a man in a maelstrom of malevolent weather who is driven mad by grief after the needless death of his wife in premature childbirth; a man tortured by excruciating headaches; a man driven beyond endurance into irrational screams of despair, and a man whose response to the violence of his own unrestrained emotions is to inflict horrific violence on others.  This humane representation of the perpetrator made me think about a book I haven’t read yet, See What You Made Me Do: Power Control and Domestic Violence which won the 2020 Stella Prize. Jennifer at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large wrote about her response to it here, and it was discussed in this article at The Conversation.  It’s not an novelist’s job to come up with a solution to prevent male explosions of anger like this, but one can’t but wonder, with the benefit of hindsight, what might have been done to prevent the atrocity that took place in real life.

None of this is to imply that Astley was deflecting attention from her primary preoccupation.  She alludes to Indigenous dispossession when an Indigenous scholarship boy responds to racism with a splendid put-down…

Indigenous readers are warned that there is offensive language in the following excerpt:

‘What’s a boong like you,’ one of them asked Normie Cooktown that afternoon, ‘doing at a school like this, eh?’

Vine overheard this question on his way to duty in the shower rooms.  He saw Normie, plumped out by boarding-school stodge and the bravery that came with being the fastest runner, stick out his lower lip and he paused by the half-open door.

‘My grandad…’ Normie said.  And stopped.

‘Your grandad what? Witchetty George? Wurley Wille?

‘My grandad owned your dad’s place once.  Reedy Crossing.’

‘B—sh–!’

‘It’s true. My grandad was Martin Pelham.’

The other boy reddened.  ‘What about your grandma, then? What about her? Some camp gin.  Pelham doesn’t count as your grandad.’

‘He went to a better school than this.’

Vine held his breath.  Other boys coming across from the playing-fields looked at him curiously.

‘And what was that? Wombat college? Mulga Grammar, eh?’

‘No,’ Normie Cooktown said.  ‘It was a place in England.’ He scuffed his feet and memory.  ‘Rugby’.  (p.180)

(Rugby.  One of the great public schools of England, immortalised in Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes.)

Astley is also explicit about the slavery imposed by the Queensland government at this time, using the word, possibly for the first time in Australian fiction.   The Indigenous people herded away from their own country into this settlement had no freedom of movement; and were not paid for their labour.  They were chained by the neck, subjected to solitary confinement and separated from their families for weeks at a time merely for ‘cheeking’ the supervisor.  They had to get permission to marry and it was often refused.  Their lives were ruled by bells and dormitories to separate the sexes.

Ever the schoolteacher, Astley notes that the Queensland school curriculum (closely modelled on the British curriculum) exalted the historic British philanthropic campaign to abolish slavery in 1833 while continuing to implement slavery in the decades after Australian Federation.  (As I recall it, it was documented in Henry Reynolds’ This Whispering in Our Hearts, that, prior to Federation, a fusillade of correspondence took place between humanitarian colonists reporting the subversion of the rule of law; and the Colonial Office in Britain demanding that there be an end to the atrocities in the Australian colonies.  Indifferent colonial governments ignored these demands because they were more concerned about establishing frontier settlements than human rights.  After Federation, state governments did as they pleased without answering to anyone).

There are many confronting aspects to this novel and it retains its power today.  It won the Age Book of the Year in 1996.

Other reviews are at Whispering Gums, Reading Matters and at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip.

This is my last review for Thea Astley Week 2020 but I shall be on the lookout for more Astleys than I haven’t read yet.  Thanks to everyone who contributed with reviews, articles, commentary and enthusiasm for this great Australian writer.  We won’t let her be forgotten!

Author: Thea Astley
Title: The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow
Publisher: Penguin Australia, 1997, first published 1996
ISBN: 9780140267556, pbk., 296 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Diversity Books, $5.00

Available in a Text Classics edition at Fishpond: The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow and at your local indie bookshop.


Responses

  1. I didn’t know about the term rainshadow. How interesting.

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    • There must be a word that means the opposite too.
      I used to drive a particular route home from Teachers’ College, and there was a particular suburb where ordinary rain would turn into torrents. Every time!

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  2. There is an old Australian movie titled Rain Shadow with Rachel Ward, and it’s worth watching!

    Thanks for refreshing my memory about this one Lisa, I remembered I liked it very much – another superb Astley I hope more people read it. I wonder why we never studied her at school – I don’t think we studied any Australian writers other than Patrick White’s Tree of Man for the HSC .

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    • It was a TV series, I remember because I missed the last episode and had to wait till I could get the DVD to find out how it ended!
      See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rain_Shadow_(TV_series)
      That’s how I knew what a rainshadow was.

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      • That’s how I knew too Lisa!

        Astley gets few and often mediocre reviews on goodreads – I’m glad you are putting your reviews up there.

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        • I put them on Library Thing too:)

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    • While Astley started publishing in the late 1950s, I suspect she wasn’t “classic” enough for my high school years in the late 1960s. It took a long time I think for her to be properly recognised, despite all the accolades at awards.

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      • I think you’re probably right… I didn’t really start reading contemporary literature until I went to university. I think it’s partly the nature of the beast… there’s a process that a book has to transcend to get onto reading lists… off the top of my head, a consensus about merits; appropriateness to major elements of the curriculum (e.g. at university, development of the novel, examples of modernism & other styles; at school, offering discussion opportunities on a theme), and availability. Schools also leave books on the list for a number of years to keep costs down so that texts can be passed on, e.g. to younger students in a family.
        But I think also, that when we were at school, there was more of a consensus about what the canon was, and it was largely British at that time for a whole lot of reasons.
        Did you do Latin at school? I did Latin and French.

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        • No, I just did French. Plus Modern History and Geography, in addition to English, Maths and Science. But I did do some contemporary literature in school – at least early to mid-20th century like Patrick White, EM Forster plus a couple of Aussies. It was mostly 19th century English novels though (Dickens, Brontes, Hardy)

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          • I wish I’d done more geography. But then, I wish I’d done a whole lot of other subjects, it was so hard to choose.

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            • Exactly — too many subjects to choose. I did quite a lot of latin and greek roots in primary school (Queensland). I’ve never forgotten that learning. I don’t think they are taught now but they are invaluable, aren’t they?

              I loved geography. It and English were my favourite subjects at school – but not at university, where I did one unit and stopped it!

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  3. I didn’t know what rainshadow meant, but you would think the cover designer/editor/publishing house would have bothered to find out and veto the inappropriate second cover. Needless to say, this sounds like a book very much designed to appeal to me (a trained anthropologist).

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    • Well, I think I’ve muttered before about big publishing houses dumping their designers in a cost-cutting move …
      Most of the really good designs here in Australia come from small indie publishing houses.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The cover of my edition is much prettier, albeit more focused on the tropical setting than the definition of rainshadow – and, ironically, you bought it for me!

    https://readingmattersblog.com/2012/06/23/the-multiple-effects-of-rainshadow-by-thea-astley/

    I read it not long after Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man – and many of the subjects/issues were uncannily similar despite one being fictional and the other being true and written decades apart.

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    • *chuckle* You’d think I would have included your review then, eh?
      I’ll redress it right now:)
      And yes, a lovely cover…

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    • And, it’s got palms on it. Nice.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Maha Lisa, nice to see that you’ve finally read this given on my 2010 review you said it had whipped up onto your 2010 TBR pile!! Makes me laugh in solidarity. An item from the late news would have been on my TBR before that.

    Anyhow, I enjoyed you review and being reminded of this book. It’s one of Astley’s that I’ve actually read twice.

    Thanks for doing this week. I loved the encouragement to read another of hers, and would love to have read a couple but one is better than nothing!

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  6. It’s been interesting following you read all these! I have a copy of It’s Raining in Mango, which I will happily send in your direction if you haven’t read it… ;D

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    • That’s very kind of you, but the postage to Australia would be astronomical. (I know this is true in the reverse, the postage to send a little knitted baby jacket to London cost five times as much as the cost of the yarn). I’m sure I can pick one up in an OpShop once the lockdown is over and the shops open up again.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. You have certainly whetted my appetite for more Thea Astley. My local library had this but no others. I realised have already read it but will read it again after your reviews here. She is quite exceptional and love her dark humour.

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    • Thanks Fay… I’ll ‘fess up… I wasn’t going to read this last one of my pile, I wanted to keep it for a rainy day — you know, when you’ve had a run of unsatisfactory books and you just want something that you know is going to be good. So I picked up one that was sent to me by a publisher, and I couldn’t bear it. It was so ordinary and inane and full of vulgar language used as a substitute for having an adequate vocabulary. I went straight back to Astley!
      I was a bit worried that the next book would suffer by comparison too, but fortunately, it turned out ok:)

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  8. Ah yes. Parts of the east coast of Tasmania suffer the effects of rainshadow.
    I will be looking out for more Thea Astley books to read. Thanks, Lisa, for making me more aware of her works.

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    • That link to the areas of rainshadow in Australia was quite interesting: I’ve driven those barren areas out west of Melbourne hundreds of times, and never realised why.

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  9. Hi Lisa, it is great to be reminded of Thea Astlely’s novels. You have encouraged me to reread The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow – and looking forward to it.

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    • Thank you for your contribution Meg:)
      Who shall we do next year?

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      • Hi Lisa, I finished reading The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow over the weekend, and now it is one of my favourite reads for the year. Thanks for your time and research into Thea Astley. Barbara Hanrahan did pop into my head for next year. I thought I had some of novels but I cannot find them. I am sure your selection will be the right one.

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        • Barbara Hanrahan… now there’s a thought. I’ve read one of hers (A Chelsea Girl) and I have The Frangipani Gardens on the TBR, but that’s all. There’s a bio of her at Wakefield Press, and Booktopia has The Scent of Eucalyptus, but other than that… well, it’s going to be a quest to find some more!

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          • I’ve read and reviewed The scent of eucalyptus, which I liked a lot. It has stuck with me over the years since I’ve read it.

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            • The issue is going to be… will there be enough contributors to make it worthwhile having a ‘week’. Unless we (meaning the usual suspects) have at least three or four between us, it’s not going to be much of a week. I wonder why there aren’t any of hers in Text Classics?

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              • Yes I thought that too. It’s the same with Olga Masters . Not a big output. I guess someone still owns copyright for her (Hanrahan, I mean) books.

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              • Hi Lisa, I agree it is difficult to obtain her books. I have tried. But Barbara Hanrahan novels as, Sue said, always leave an impression on you. A completely different writer to Astley, so much softer, but just as observant.

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                • Well, last night, just before bed, I found four, ranging in price from $1USD to $3USD here in an Australian bookshop and ordered the lot. So even if we don’t do BH week, I will read them … eventually!
                  I must admit I am toying with the idea of doing David Malouf because I don’t have many of his magnificent oeuvre here on the blog, and I’ve got some I haven’t read and others I haven’t read for a long time.

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  10. There is no information about the cover design on the first edition jacket, however there is a note to say that the image is ‘Emerging’ by Margery Watsford. I couldn’t discover anything about Margery EXCEPT a link that notes she painted the picture for the cover of Multiple Effects…

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    • Thank you, Carmel, that’s good to know and I’ll amend my opening paragraph to acknowledge her work.
      I’m assuming she was commissioned to do it.. it’s even more impressive that she captured the spirit of the book so perfectly.

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  11. But who was Margery, and what else did she paint??

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  12. “Margery Watsford spent the first half of her life in Victoria and some
    time in the Far North. She feels that the contrasting situations have
    enabled her to enjoy vivid impressions of the tropical scene.”
    I found this is in a James Cook University Journal post. But Margery is elusive

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  13. I haven’t found any trace of her online at all.

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  14. Sometimes the credit to the jacket/cover designer is on the imprint page rather than on the jacket/cover itself. Have you looked there?

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    • Yes, sometimes it’s on the back cover, sometimes on the verso page, sometimes at the back, but too often (a bit like translators) often not credited at all.

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      • I think you mean the imprint page (i.e. the page on the reverse side [verso] of the title page, with all the publishing details on it). Strictly speaking, every second page in a book is a verso page. Rectos are the right-hand pages; versos are the left-hand pages.

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        • Yes. But everywhere. I don’t know any other bloggers who try to identify the cover art designers and/or illustrators, but although I sometimes forget, more often if I don’t mention it, it’s because it’s nowhere to be found in the book when I’ve looked everywhere for it.

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          • That’s puzzling! I was a book editor for many years, working for reputable companies like Penguin Books, Macmillan, Melbourne University Press, etc. It was always a given that the cover designer was credited in the book. I just checked in a few recent books I had to hand, and they all give these credits. It’s strange that the books you’re talking about don’t have them.

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            • Well, I’ve just pulled at random five hardcover books from my Miles Franklin First editions collection: one each from Viking, Macmillan, A&U, UQP and Chatto & Windus. The Chatto & Windus (the Great World, 1990) credits the endpapers on the verso (imprint) page and the author photo on in the inside of the dustjacket at the back but that’s all. Oceana Fine (A&U, 1989) credits both the cover illustration and the book designer on the inside of the dustjacket at the back — but of course if the dustjacket is lost, no credits remain. The Grisly Wife (Macmillan, 1993), Bliss (UQP, 1981) and The Well (Viking, 1986) are the same, credits on the dustjacket but nothing in the actual book. And because they are cheaper to buy in the secondhand market, most of the older books I have, don’t have their covers any more and I get their covers from the web, usually Wikipedia which often has an image of the first edition cover.
              I find it exasperating that so often when I buy a new book, the price sticker is plastered over the credits on the back cover which are often in very tiny writing as well! I have to be very careful removing the sticker!

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  15. I have just finished Astley’s “Girl with a Monkey” and found it hard going and also unpleasantly snobbish, but I’m willing to try another of her novels. Just a note for readers (like me) who are outside Australia: several of Astley’s novels are available in Kindle form outside Australia, but “The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow” was not. I contacted Text Publishing to ask why, and it turned out to be an error, which has been corrected: the book is now available in Kindle form from international Amazon sites including amazon.com and amazon.co.uk Many thanks to the helpful people at Text Publishing for their help with this!

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    • Hello Paul, thanks for your feedback. I hesitate to call Astley an intellectual snob, but in her fiction at least, she was caustic about people who followed the herd. Australia has a long tradition of what is called ‘cutting down tall poppies’ and I have no doubt that she would have experienced that whether she deserved it or not.
      That’s great news about Text and the e-book edition, I’ll be interested to hear what you think about it.

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      • Hi Lisa, I’ve now read “The Multiple Effects …” and unfortunately I don’t like it any more than “Girl with a Monkey”. You criticized Bill Green for his “depiction of racist language” in “Small Town Rising”, but Astley’s novel is no better, using words like “boong” (as you point out) and “half-caste”, and one chapter is even called “I love the black buggers”. As well as the racism, there is also snobbery and casual homophobia (the homosexual schoolmaster Shell is not only unsympathetically portrayed but also superfluous to the plot). I admit I may have missed the point of this novel entirely, but in that case I plead the effects of the over-elaborate and self-consciously “literary” language. The Introduction by Chloe Hooper is worth reading, but her own non-fictional account of Palm Island is – in my opinion – much more worthwhile than Astley’s book. Sorry I can’t share your enthusiasm. – Paul

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        • Not to worry Paul, Astley is an acquired taste, and some may well not care to acquire it!

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  16. My bookshelves are a disgrace, any organising principle long since subverted by double stacking and so on. But by looking in the most likely places I find I have 5 Astleys, though not Rainshadow which surprises me. BUT and this is completely off the point, looking along the shelves in the lounge – which I rarely do – I came across A Curious Intimacy by Jessica White, which I apparently bought for my most recent ex-wife in 2007. What good taste I have. I’d better go and read it.
    (I suspect I might not be ‘usual’ when it comes to Barbara Hanrahan of whom I have not previously heard)

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    • Well, now I’m thinking about Malouf… so you might be off the hook.

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      • I might bags Fly Away Peter which as I remember it marked an important turning point in the way we regarded WWI

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      • I nearly suggested Malouf, Lisa! He has a good body of work and you and I like him!! I have a couple of TBRs of his on my shelves – though there are some, like Fly away Peter which I’d love to read again. However, I’d start with a TBR I think, if you go this way.

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        • He was born in March which is not such a busy time with festivals and not close to ILW so I’m firming up on the idea…

          Liked by 1 person


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