It’s Raining in Mango – Andy spends some time in the Wet with AuntyThea

May 27, 2012

We’re supposed to be on a boat today going to some of Rhodes’s nicest beaches for a swim. Unfortunately we were sold a bodgy ticket by a bodgy ticket seller for a trip that wasn’t happening. Got our money back though, so it’s all good. So I might as well see if I can write something about It’s Raining in Mango, hey. Which is a pity, really, because Thea Astley deserves more than a few hundred words banged out in an internet cafe while I’m on holidays.

To my knowledge this is the first Astley I’ve read; it’s possible I’ve encountered some of her stories before. It’s Raining in Mango is certainly the first of her novels I’ve read and I guarantee it won’t be the last. She’s pretty damn good, I reckon.

As usual I’m not going to try and give you a precis of the story; I’ll leave that to Netty. I don’t have a copy of the book with me and it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, which is criminal I think, so this might be a bit patchy. Described broadly, you might say it’s an alternative fictional history of the hundred or so years prior to the novel’s publication – the year before Australia’s bicentenary. While I think Astley found much to celebrate in Australia’s history, I doubt – on the strength of Mango – that it was what the mainstream thought was worth celebrating. I don’t remember, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Astley was condemned for Mango by some. Its vision of our past is definitely not the one the establishment wanted on display at the time.

The early chapters deal with, among other things, the interaction of north Queensland’s white settlers with the indigenous population. It’s not a pretty picture. Violence and massacre were the name of the game, even in the late 1800s and no doubt well into the 20th. Many people would no doubt dismiss stories of aboriginal massacres as black-armband nonsense, but the area where I spent my teens – Maffra/Sale, in Gippsland – was home to Angus McMillan, a notorious (and probably syphlitic) slaughterer of the local tribes in the 1850s and ’60s. It happened, and it probably happened far more frequently than most people realise. The oppression and dispossession of Australia’s first people is a theme that carries through the book, right to the ’80s where a local policeman turns a blind eye as a crowd of white tradies beat the shit out of a handful of aboriginal guys – and then locks up the victims. It’s a brutal, shocking, and frankly disgusting scene, with a continuity back to the novel’s earliest pages.

If aboriginal massacre was a bit of a taboo subject in 1987 then it wasn’t the only one Astley was prepared to tackle. Her foundation characters (Cornelius and Jessica Olive Laffey, Cornelius the first of a number of suspiciously spineless men in the book, Jessica Olive the first of a number of strong, uncowed women) have a daughter who ends up on the game in a brothel in the Queensland jungle by the side of a river that floods, washing her and her fellow hookers out to sea (not giving anything away here – you’ll understand why if you have a look at the book). Her brother’s children, Connie and Will, share a weird incestuous moment after Will returns from World War II, having admitted to his sister he had an affair with another soldier while on the frontline. If that wasn’t enough to mess with a guy’s head in the ’40s, he then saw his “mate” blown to pieces only metres from him. Still, I can’t say that’d be enough to send me into the arms of my sister. No offence, sis. Anyway.

Massacre, prostitution, incest, same-sex attraction – gutsy stuff, I’d have thought, for a female writer in her 60s at a time of nauseating national fervour. But Astley goes further, bringing her story into the ’80s and introducing a group of hippie environmentalists determined to stop the bulldozing of the Daintree rainforest. The depiction of the hippies is interesting – Astley seems sympathetic to their cause, which makes sense, but the characters themselves are not terribly likable, their contempt for an ageing Will a particularly unpleasant aspect of their groupthink. Will himself is an impressive achievement, his pathetic inadequacies as a human presented with immense compassion.

If I had a copy of the book with me I’d have more to say. Lucky for you I don’t. The only criciticism I can muster is that it sometimes feels more like a collection of interlinking short stories than a novel, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Astley’s awesome. I’ll be reading more.

One comment

  1. Glad to hear it! Lynette bailed me up in office the other day concerned I had recommended some dull Australian historical piece. Hope she finds it as engaging. Have fun on holiday.

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