The inhabitants of Drylands, a small country town in Queensland, don’t really live there, they endure or survive it. As drought and economic changes threaten the town’s future, Janet, the fading literary-minded owner of the local newsagency begins writing a novel she imagines for the world’s last reader, a meditation on millennial themes about the end of reading and the rise of visual media, and also a strange and scathing portrait of the town through the world of its inhabitants.
The story develops through a series of characters whose lives intersect with the town: comings and goings across 50 years of time passing, until a picture emerges of how it all fits together.
Jim has wasted his life farming an arid block of land inherited from his father. His escape is a childhood dream of moving to the sea and building a boat. Benny is an indigenous man harbouring a buried family secret. He’s pushed out of his house by a corrupt councilman who wants his land. Lannie is expected to live as a drudge, forced into a life of housework and servitude for her uncaring husband and idiot sons. She counts every load of washing, every packed lunch, until one day, she just gets in her car and drives away.
There’s a weird Alanis Morisette type irony of obviousness to the arcs of most of the characters: the woman who watches a domestic violence incident with pity, and is then stalked and harassed herself; the man with a childhood longing for the ocean building a boat in the middle of the desert; the sensitive former manager of a bookstore marrying an illiterate man. All the characters carry a shared sense of injustice, an ordinary pain in their sensitivity towards the cruelty and avarice of modern Australian society, rarely expressed in their outer lives but deeply felt, and little by little, leading them to the decisive departures that end their experiences with the town.
Drylands is an interesting novel politically, given its time of publication with the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, and the racism, bigotry and militarism of the Howard years. It skirts the borders of satire and acerbic social criticism such that it’s difficult to fall back on existing expectations of genre and positioning, when the observations and characters so obviously and intensely reflect the life experiences and concerns of Astley herself. The emerging question here is whether the cynical and barely literate patriarchy of Drylands is a stand-in for Australian society as a whole, a kind of generational attack on the 1990s, the rise of TV, the decline of reading, anti-intellectualism and the plenitude of white collar crime.
For such a blatantly critical and polarising novel, there’s a paradoxical subtlety to the whole thing. Attempts to hold up its seemingly coarse and clichéd aspects fall away like sand through grasping fingers. In the hands of a lesser author, the black and white themes and tropes might have been banal and predictable to bring together without the level of stylistic control and expressive skill found here. The vivid imagery of the prose is backed up by an incredible rhythm and attention to the detail in the landscape, the sounds of the countryside, the small entropic detritus of modern existence, all contributing and feeding back into the themes of loneliness, injustice and departure.
A triumphantly unsentimental final novel by one of the most talented Australian writers of the 20th century.