Friday, 23 April 2010

Queensland - A Kindness Cup by Thea Astley

One of the main reasons I started this 'journey' was because I wanted to come across literary gems like Thea Astley's A Kindness Cup.  I have a feeling Astley is better know in her home country than here in the UK and she certainly deserved the acolades that the Australian literary world rained down upon her.  The ironic title is taken from the Scottish poem/song Auld Lang syne which is horribly sung again and again at the end of the novel, as the 'good guys' are beaten down by a community that refuses to accept its past. 

Set in the fictional town of The Haws, somewhere in Queensland, the book deals with a week-long festival celebrating the town's 20th anniversary.  One man in particular, Mr Dorahy, wants to remind the town's inhabitants of a terrible incident that happened in the early days of the settlement, when a group of Aboriginal tribesmen were murdered in cold blood, the perpetrators of this horrible crime having become esteemed citizens of the town. 

Astley paid a lot of attention to the language she used and, unlike Malouf's Remembering Babylon, I struggled with this novel a bit in the beginning, until I got into the rhythm and language of the text.  I also think it's a generational thing.  People have so little patience for big ideas and complicated sentences these days.  Malouf is a very modern writer, he tells an incredibly complex story, using clear and simple phrases.  Astley, writing almost four decades ago, revels in the literary twists and turns of her story and the reader needs to put some work in to keep up!

Dorahy is the village school teacher, jaded by his new life in this dull village on the frontier of the relatively new Australian colony.  Astley gives him the words of Livy to teach the boys of the village and there is a subtle hint at the danger of teaching young Australian boys about Roman war tactics and that this somehow could have led to their desire to kill the native tribes and establish their own empire in the Australian outback.  But Dorahy is a man of principles and he is the main source of conflict in the novel, turning up at the town's 20th anniversary, hellbent on reminding the townsfolk of the injustices of the past. 

The main event centres around the massacre, of course, but there is the added complication that a (stubborn) white man, called Lunt, who had been living peacefully with the tribe on his land, tries to protect the tribe and also becomes a victim of the town's vigilantism, losing a leg and almost dying the in process.  It is ostensibly on Lunt's behalf that Dorahy launches his campaign.  The fate of the indigenous tribe is an even harder truth that the townsfolk aren't willing to face.

There are two sides to this story.  On one hand is Dorahy, Lunt, a peaceful family called the Jenners and a very compassionate newspaper editor called Snoggers Boyd.  On the other hand is the arrogant young Buckmaster (he's still called this, even when he is old, in deference to his father) and his cronies, Sweetman, Armitage and Wilson.  Buckmaster is ultimately responsible for the massacre, but gets away with it, although he is given a stern warning from the court, because he didn't seek approval at state level before punishing, what he claims, are criminals.

Some of the main characters leave the town in the intervening years, including Lunt who moves to an obscure backwater further up the coast.  Dorahy insists on bringing Lunt back for the 'celebration' and enlists the support of Boyd in doing so.  It's interesting when they pass the site of the massacre, a small mountain called Mandarana, both men fall into their memories of the place and it occured to me that the landscape now had meaning for the whites - the fact they attached memories to Mandarana and imagined the horrific events of the day as they were passing by.  Perhaps, they'd finally made a connection with the land, although under horrible circumstances and this reminded me of the traditional dreaming ceremonies of the Aborigines, singing the land into existence.

Lunt is a very unwilling rebel, but agrees to come back to the town out of curiousity.  He gets caught up in the politics of the situation and is a classic victim, being beaten by one side, lauded by the other and made out to be something he's not.  In some ways, Dorahy and Boyd do as much damage to the old man, as their enemies. 

Another interesting character is Gracie.  She sings the songs, Home Sweet Home and Auld Lang Syne and used to be the belle of the ball, back in the day.  Now she is older, has gone through two husbands, the second one a violent wife-beater and come out the other side full of regrets and with her dreams crushed.  She hides her sadness very well with an overbearing gaeity when she is in company.  It's clear that she is totally dependent on the adoration of the men and is happy when a man, any man is 'in dutiful attendance'.  She has an amazing revelation about her life, towards the end of the book and does good by Dorahy and Boyd, if only for a short time, but at great personal risk.  One line about her that I loved was:

'But is she any happier, for having glanced sideways too often?'

I'm picking up on some of the themes of Australian literature, both with Astley and Malouf - themes of guilt and isolation, disorientation in an unfamiliar landscape, sadness at the violent defence of the land.  An interesting theme that runs through both novels is the theme of anarchy.  Dorahy is the schoolmaster - he taught Buckmaster, Sweetman and the rest of them, unwittingly humiliating Buckmaster, through his own boredom and dissatisfaction with his lot in life.  The boys are resentful of him and the novel is all about throwing off the shackles of Dorahy's world - the constraints of civilised behaviour and the emphasis on a culture than seems far removed from their everyday reality. 

I'm going to leave you with another song that Gracie sings, a hymn this time, which she used to sing when she was a young girl.  I thought it was quite poignant and expresses the melancholy of wanting to escape.  The official title is 'Hear my Prayer', although in the book it's referred to as O, for the Wings of a Dove.  The music was written by Felix Mendelssohn. 

Image credits

I couldn't find a copyright free image of the book, so I took a photo of the cover myself.  Does the job nicely :-)
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