…in which I invite someone bookish to share one of their all-time favourite works of fiction and what it means to them. This week’s Friday Fave comes from Jill Eddington, Director of Literature at The Australia Council:
Thea Astley’s A Kindness Cup is undoubtedly one of my favourite reads. Published in 1974 this is a book set to challenge white Australia’s view of itself. Based on a brutal massacre of the Indigenous inhabitants at The Leap, in central Queensland in the second half of the 19th century, it was one of the few recorded incidents for which the perpetrators faced trial. A work of fiction, Astley in her acknowledgement says ‘this cautionary fable makes no claim to being a historical work.’
The book focuses on an event in which a group of white men from a fictional town, The Taws, massacre the local indigenous tribe. Set in two periods, twenty years apart, Astley brings the players back together to celebrate a reunion of the town where this occurred. School teacher Dorahy uses this occasion to return, wanting to expose the truth of the dreadful act of violence committed by the group of men who still live in an uncomfortable silence and acceptance of their actions.
Dorahy takes with him Lunt, the one person who, 20 years earlier, had stood up to, at great personal cost, the vigilantes, led by Buckmaster. But like so many heroes Lunt wants no part in revisiting the horror of the time. He too has become one of their victims. He, almost as much as anyone, wants this memory buried. And so the memory is, both literally and metaphorically, buried deeply in the Australian landscape along with those massacred; a landscape, which twenty years on still screams loudly with violence and death.
What Astley exposes best for the reader and why I revisit this book often is a deep disquiet with which so many white Australians live on this land deeply rooted with fear and guilt. She forces us to cast our eye across the landscape and see in it the ashes of so many similar horrors and hidden stories. From this she builds a picture of an Australia which is deeply damaged by the past and a need to acknowledge rather than repress these truths.
However it is Astley’s use of language, eloquent and rich yet stark and succinct, which provides me as a reader such pleasure.
In the heart of the next morning, under its early carnation sky, Lunt and his dog went round to the horse-yard. The mills were creaking, straining their guts to drag trickles of love from the red powdered earth. The land lay flat all round with its dusty scrubby shade trees making black dawn patches.
With words like this Astley seduces the reader. However Astley is unflinching is her description of the violence. There are scenes in this that are truly shocking. In one scene Astley, forces the reader to witness the most base of human behaviour but simultaneously provides us with one of the most extraordinary acts of human compassion. How she does this still defies me.
We have since been challenged and privileged by the likes of Indigenous writers Kim Scott and Melissa Lucashenko as well as the books of Kate Grenville who also uses fiction to tell history. However Astley, as a white woman in the 70s, bravely took on the big topics in our history and afforded us as readers a different view of ourselves. It is because A Kindness Cup does exactly this that it will remain one of my favourite reads.
In the early years of 2000, I was working in my office of the writers festival in Byron Bay when a weathered but handsome woman in her late seventies knocked on the door. ‘You probably don’t know me; I am Thea Astley, a writer’. Excitedly I explained that I did indeed know her and was thrilled to meet her.
A proud smoker to the end, Thea spent time over these last couple of years of her life on the balcony outside my office (as she did outside our local library) smoking and chatting with me and a lucky few other literature lovers. Never one for small talk or for suffering fools these conversations became some of the most precious in my life. I was lucky as a Director that Thea agreed to speak at two Byron Bay Writers Festivals to the joy of audiences, the last of which was a few weeks before her death. This reading was recorded and stays as a wonderful legacy of her ability to use her words and wit right to the very end.
Astley was a great writer, one of Australia’s most highly awarded but as many women in her time undervalued by the public. After her death her son made a generous donation to the festival and I asked bravely if we could also use her name to begin the Thea Astley lecture. It is presented annually by an Australian writer each year of the festival. Kate Grenville delivered the inaugural lecture.
Thea Astley was a funny, irreverent woman who deplored ignorance and pretence. She also had a deep kindness and empathy for humanity particularly for Indigenous Australians and their treatment. This was born out in her writing.
Astley was a chronicler of the Australian people or perhaps humanity generally and she set about to ask us as readers to hold the mirror up to ourselves. She presented the sad and often the darker side of human behaviour, along with stories of Indigenous people she bravely wrote of how women suffered and took the brunt of male brutality, she explored the godforsaken nature of our regional life, the boredom and constant tedium of everyday life. Simultaneously she described the harshness of the Australian landscape along with the lush tropics of North Queensland as evocatively as any I have read. Let’s hope her books live on for many generations to read.
As Director of Literature at the Australia Council for the Arts Jill is currently responsible for providing leadership of the Australia Council’s Literature program and managing delivery of Australia Council grants and initiatives for the Literature sector. Previously Jill worked widely in the arts and education and sectors.
Your turn: Have you read A Kindness Cup or any other works by Thea Astley? Does this one appeal to you?