Why Netty is happy to hang around in Mango, but in no hurry to go back to Queensland

June 3, 2012


I’ve only ever been to Queensland twice in my life – once, to the Sunshine Coast for a good friend’s milestone birthday; the other, to Brisbane overnight for a work conference. That’s been intentional – I have never been that interested in the sunshine state, based on a raft of what are no doubt fallacies, misconceptions and myths, primarily surrounding the weather and the people. But I make no bones about that – and people such as Bob Katter don’t sway my thoughts none.

Thea Astley was born and educated in Brisbane, where she lived for the first 20-odd years of her life before relocating to New South Wales. After retiring from her career as a uni lecturer, Astley and her husband moved to Kuranda, in far north Queensland, for the best part of the 1980s; I assume It’s Raining In Mango – released in 1987 – was written there. The vast majority of the action that takes place in Astley’s novel – her 10th, published when she was 65 – is set in Queensland, although I have not been able to establish whether the townlet of Mango ever actually existed. Perhaps Andy, who is far more familiar with Queensland than myself, can help me out with this one.

Astley has a shockingly low profile in this country, considering the quality of her much-lauded output (15 novels and two short-story collections spanning 40-plus years; four Miles Franklin awards). Her name has popped up for consideration on previous ANRC lists, but what finally cemented her place was the high recommendations of our friend, colleague and occasional drinking partner Dan, who – in his low-key fashion – raved about her during one such pub session. With no prior knowledge of It’s Raining In Mango – chosen by Andy, for reasons that escape me now – I picked up a copy, scanned the back cover and, horrified, noted phrases such as “nineteenth century”, “Aboriginal dispossession”, “slaughter” and “Australian heritage”. “Jesus,” I thought to myself – and then voiced strongly the next time I encountered Dan – “a fine, light, breezy holiday read this is going to be”.  (Yes, like Andy, I too am on holidays; unlike Andy, I am not swanning around Greek islands, working on my tan, drinking beer and eating gyros.)

Don’t judge a book by its (back) cover, though. I am pleased to report that my initial reservations were completely unfounded (sorry, Dan – I never should have doubted you!).  It’s Raining In Mango is an immensely enjoyable account of four generations of the Laffey family, spanning four generations across the mid-19th to late-20th centuries. A compact 240 pages, it’s also immensely readable; I knocked it over during the course of three nights. And although it has been a while since I’ve perused any secondary-school reading lists, I hope Astley – and in particular this book, especially dealing as it does with the issues and dichotomies between the white settlers and indigenous Australians – is firmly entrenched in there.

The first page provides a roll call of the book’s characters and a family tree of their relationships, giving a Six Feet Under-style list of date of births/deaths and causes. I didn’t think this type of “spoiler” detracted at all from the unfolding of the story; I kept returning to this page to double-check character details as I read. The prologue opens in the early 1980s, with Connie Laffey, aged in her mid-60s, at the scene of a forestry protest involving her 40-something son Reever. She trips over in the ensuing chaos and her mind travels back through time, through her family history, “her body … crippled with memory” (Astley is an absolute master of the succinct, evocative phrase).

The book then backtracks to the start of the family’s story, with smooth-talking Canadian journalist Cornelius Laffey landing in Sydney in 1861, seeking “frontier magic”. He meets and woos well-to-do but down-to-earth Sydney girl Jessica Olive, a barrister’s daughter. After the birth of their two children Nadine and George, Cornelius – against his wife’s wishes – whisks the family away up north to Queensland. He finds that the north is indeed still very much frontier territory, and the family disgustedly encounters first-hand the atrocities committed against the indigenous population.

Cornelius’s attempts to report on the slaughter only result in getting him sacked from his job at the local newspaper. The family battles on, barely keeping their heads above water as the children grow up. Nadine, now a beautiful but bored and sulky teenager, falls pregnant to a travelling bushman; Cornelius abandons his family. Nadine also shoots through after the birth of her son Harry, leaving him behind to be brought up by her ever-stoic mother.

While Nadine, who supports herself by joining a brothel, meets a watery fate at the hands of the weather of the tropics, Jessica Olive stays put and forges a career as a hotel proprietress. Her son George acquires land near the (probably fictional) townlet of Mango; eventually he marries Mag, a girl some 20 years his junior who bears him two children, Connie and Will.

After the untimely deaths of his uncle and aunt, Harry and his wife Clytie take charge of the two youngsters. A late-teenaged Connie has a couple of brief wartime dalliances with US servicemen, the latter of which results in a quick, ill-fated marriage and the birth of their son Reever. But the trained nurse returns to her childhood roots and the land, as does, eventually, her brother Will, after his own military stint. Will builds himself a bush sanctuary, but the lifelong loner struggles with his self-imposed isolation and also his sexuality. The young hippies who enter his life and his property – at the well-intentioned behest of his nephew Reever – set in chain a series of events that ultimately ends in tragedy.

Contrasted with the saga of the Laffey family is the story of Bidiggi Tandawarra (Bidgi Mumbler), whose people suffer the destruction of their tribes and land at the hands of the gold-hunting white settlers. Bidiggi strikes up a friendship of sorts with a young George, encouraged by his sympathetic parents. As an adult, Bidgi works as a farmhand at George’s property, while the couple risk themselves to help out members of his family who are having their children forceably removed. Later in the book, Bidgi’s great-grandson Billy is at the heart of a horrific clash – witnessed by Will, who attempts to intervene – at a local pub between a group of vengeful racists and the local blacks. Through her characters, Astley leaves the reader in no doubt whose side she is on.

In short, It’s Raining In Mango is a wonderful book and Astley is an incredible writer.  Like Andy, I will definitely be reading more of her work in the future. And thanks for the recommendation, Dan – on the strength of this, you can suggest authors for Reading Challenge any time.

It still doesn’t make me want to go to back to Queensland in a hurry, though.


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