The well dressed explorer by Thea Astley
Melbourne: Thomas Nelson, 1977 ISBN 0170051706
(First published in 1962 by Angus and Robertson)
I started this blog mainly as a personal project to write something about every book I read, and much to my surprise, I have kept up with it for a few years now. When as a reader you undertake something like this, a few things happen: as I hoped, you do seem to remember better what you have read by writing about it, and you can see patterns in what you read at any particular time. You can see what your interests are, and where they lead you, much more accurately than via memory alone. As well, other people can look at what you're reading and how you're reading it. One such person is my wife, who recently pointed out that I don't read any women writers - and of course the proof is right here that she's correct.
So, with that loving (stinging?) rebuke in mind I set about beginning to rectify that gap in my reading of late. Which brings me to the book under review. I've been meaning to read some Thea Astley for many years - as a multiple winner of the Miles Franklin Award, she's one of Australia's best known female novelists of the Twentieth Century. The well dressed explorer won the Miles Franklin in 1962, the first of four for Astley.
This book has left me perplexed. When I was half-way through it, I thought it was a pile of overwrought re-hashed garbage. After turning the last page, I'm less certain what it is, although confused might apply to the book as much as it does to me.
The narrative is quite simple - we meet George Brewster first as an adolescent, who falls madly in love with Nita, a girl who visits his Queensland town over summer holidays. This teenage crush in many ways rules the rest of his life. Nita turns out to be a bit of a "goer", and while she spends lots of time with George, he is not the only one to garner her favours. She eventually marries another boy, and heartbroken, George leaves for Sydney to continue a journalistic career.
On a trip back to Queensland, he meets and marries Nita's best friend Alice. The story follows George in his career and various affairs as he blunders through life, totally self-centred but essentially meaning well. He has attacks of religiosity (usually after being unfaithful) and often vows to reform, but never really does. As he ages he moves from being the young up-and-coming man to a boozy self-important bore.
The story ends with George's death from a heart attack.
It is a fairly thin narrative in and of itself - a vehicle for a message that is constantly thrust down the reader's throat by Astley in a fairly unsubtle manner - that George is self-centred and vain, and by being that he hurts the people around him in what he does and doesn't do.
George is represented as a man less in touch with himself than he could be, immersed in the blokey world of journalism. The women (apart from Alice) are presented as smart, sassy and knowing what they want.
Given the storyline and characterisations, I find Astley's choice of language during the novel quite bizarre - much of the description is in a style one can only call baroque, and annoyingly lacking in adjectives. An example - "O stupidity of bounding heart! Under blue flare of the wall lights expectant sheen in Nita's eyes pulverized him with lightning flash." This kind of writing in a book about a louche journalist in Australia in the thirties just doesn't fit, and comes across as strained and deliberately artsy. It's the language for a different book to this, and is distracting for the reader. It is not the sort of language any of the characters would use, and is out of place here.
Ashley's characterization of George does show insight into a certain type of man. Her descriptions of him in his latter phases show a man unwilling to accept his aging, and how pathetic that can be in others' eyes. Astley finds the need to spell that out for the reader rather than letting them find it themselves. I'm guessing that, as this is an earlier novel, Astley was still developing the craft to enable her to let the characters tell the story, rather than her telling us what we should think or feel. This book strikes me as one in which the writer has not yet discovered within themselves the style in which they can express their own voice. It's part pastiche, part rehash, but there is something there for a patient reader.
While The well dressed explorer has some good points, I suggest this is not the place to start with Astley, and she remains unfinished business for me. 1962 must have been a thin year for the Miles Franklin Award.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell