(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Australian novelist Thea Astley said in an interview that the idea for Beachmasters came to her on seeing a television account which showed the arrest of a native leader who had attempted to bring a tiny South Pacific island into independence. As might be expected, the larger powers of France and Great Britain squelched the short-lived rebellion and arrested its leader. Astley went on to explain that the desolate picture of this ancient and gentle islander being led to jail touched that sympathy she had always felt for the misfit: the person who dares to reject the accepted pattern, whether it be to defy the mores of small-town Australia, often the subject of her previous work, or to take on world powers the way the rebel leader had.

As a fictional rendering of an insignificant rebellion on an obscure island, Beachmasters succeeds, providing a detailed account of the events leading to the rebellion, its actuality, and its aftermath. The events, as Astley says, are “so quick to tell. So long in the happening.” Through the work’s taut narrative structure, the substance of revolution does emerge. Opportunists smuggle weapons to the natives, a mercenary advises, a radio announcer with a BBC accent broadcasts the victory of the ill-prepared troops and the establishment of a provisional government, the soldiers carry out senseless destruction and practice indiscriminate cruelty, the involvement of Western business interests reveals itself, and the short-lived euphoria that accompanies such ill-fated events arises, then vanishes. Astley handles these matters with characteristic irony but at the same time shows compassion for the pawns of colonialism, a condition she deplores, much like the character in the novel who asks:How could he speak 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 a belief in their own godhead?

Yet the novel turns into more than a record of a rebellion or a diatribe against colonialism, no matter how effectively it handles both. Instead, Beachmasters is essentially a religious novel, and the political events serve as a vehicle for the larger matters that concern Astley in all of her work: evil and guilt and redemption.

The cliché of a tropical paradise appears when Island Kristi, often called Eden, comes to life in a number of poetic passages, where lines such as “the mango trees blue in the butterscotch morning” capture its undeniable beauty. More often, however, the lost Eden dominates, when the island is said to have “a stinking climate where there was no weather, only hot and hotter with rampaging wets in the monsoon months, quick sunsets and sudden daylights as the world cracked open like an egg and everywhere this spinach green, this straining blue.” So the Eden has evolved into a hell for the white Europeans who have no right to be there. Outcasts from their own world—whether they be government officials representing the controlling powers, missionaries, teachers, prostitutes, mercenaries, opportunists—the outsiders have sought to find an Eden but have polluted it, then are expelled from it. Likewise, there seems little hope for the natives, corrupted by the influences of...

(The entire section is 1372 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Goldsworthy, Kerryn. “Thea Astley’s Writing: Magnetic North,” in Meanjin Quarterly. XLII (December, 1983), p. 478.

Young, Vernon. “Revolution Among the Flame Trees,” in The New York Times Book Review. XCI (June 22, 1986), p. 12.