Considered one of Australia’s most original writers, Thea Beatrice May Astley during her long career explored all levels of Australian life, satirized human folly, probed spiritual matters, and experimented with language and form. Set in Astley’s native country and drawn from the life around her, her fiction transcends its parochial origins. Her work has been published and well received in the United States and Great Britain.
Astley was brought up in a family of journalists and attended Catholic schools in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland. Showing an early interest and ability in literature and music, she studied arts at the University of Queensland, which in 1988 awarded her an honorary doctorate, one of the numerous awards, literary prizes, and honors that she received.
After college, she taught school for several years in remote parts of vast and largely unsettled Queensland. Her first two novels draw from these experiences. Girl with a Monkey records the last day a teacher spends in a dusty Queensland town, her life during the past few months unfolding through memory as she waits for a train. Schoolteachers also figure in the second novel, A Descant for Gossips, which reveals the destructive nature of a small, insular town. These books establish Astley’s recurrent thematic concerns: loneliness, both physical and spiritual; a “nausea of spirit” (as the condition is defined in Girl with a Monkey); a “personal crucifixion” at the hands of established society (as it is called in A Descant for Gossips); and a longing to reach “the center,” a term Astley uses all through her work and a destination that to her seems reachable only through death.
Astley married a musician in 1948 and moved to Sydney, where her third novel, The Well-Dressed Explorer, is primarily set. The title character is a second-rate journalist whose explorations, including his spiritual and sexual quests, fail pathetically. Here Astley’s Roman Catholic upbringing played a significant role in the fiction for the first time, and it would continue to do so in the...
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