Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Thea Astley’s novels have long dealt with the misfit in society, most often in past novels with the person who dares to reject the accepted patterns of small-town Australia. Beachmasters has moved away from the writer’s native Australia but not away from her concern with the misfit, in this case, Tommy Narota. Unlike previous heroes, he does not defy the mores of a restrictive Australian society but the actions of two great world powers that during decades of colonialism exploited and corrupted his island paradise.

Through Narota’s and his followers’ attempt at rebellion, another thematic concern arises: the evils of colonialism in its past and present forms. One of the novel’s British characters asks how he couldspeak honestly of the criminality of colonialism, the banditry of planters and trading empires, of the fools of men who strutted on the red carpets of tradition sustained by a bit of coloured rag, centuries of acute class distinction and [the colonials’] belief in their own godhead?

In addition to the emphasis on the social misfit who dares to rebel and on the absurdity of the colonial stance, another theme enters Beachmasters, in some ways dominating as it often does in Astley’s work. That is the religious theme, the matter of evil and guilt and redemption. One way in which this meaning emerges comes through the frequent use of Christian symbolism, Roman Catholic in particular. Throughout the novel, the island is referred to as Eden or a lost Eden. The most ordinary events are compared to the Mass; common items to stigmata or the mark of Ash Wednesday; unlikely people to disciples, to mendicants, or to priests. One passage questions the supposed superiority of Christianity over native religions. What a character calls “we abandoned ones” try throughout to overcome the evil that imprisons them and to discover the redemption that will free them.