I’ve returned to Thea Astley’s 1990 book ‘Reaching Tin River,’ compelled to search my bookshelves for it after reading the opening of Julian Barnes’ book ‘The Sense of an Ending’. Both books begin with a list of images – possible openings – all later revealed as pivotal to their respective stories. Both lists startle, disorientate and lure the reader onwards, although Astley’s list begins as fully fleshed as her protagonist’s mother Bonnie, whereas Barnes’ brief statements reflect his narrator’s continuing detachment.
I hold a particular penchant for Tin River’s opening and a brief comparison with Barnes’ Booker-winning prose does not nudge Astley from the pinnacle where I have placed her. But it was not the list that propelled me away from Barnes’ book towards the shelves, but his philosophising about the nature of time. By the end of page one, both Barnes and Astley break from description to remind the reader of the key ontological questions that drive existential angst – how are we to understand the nature of time and reality?
Both books revolve around time, memory, history and a reassessment of reality in the search for self. If I hadn’t returned to Tin River, I may have enjoyed Sense of an Ending. Unfortunately for Barnes, I discarded his book until I’d completely reread Astley’s. By then his well written and lauded literary novel dissipated before my eyes. What may have seemed nuanced, deliberately underplayed emotion felt thin and pale next to Astley’s raw vitality. Her language crackles and leaps. ‘Mother was a drummer in her own all-woman group, a throbber of a lady with midlife zest and an off-centre smile’ is a sentence that still mesmerises. Thrumming with energy, rippling with rhythm, Bonnie bounds into existence on this first page.
I’m not sure why Tin River remains a favourite in my pantheon of books. Maybe it was one of the first books I’d read where the narrator stakes a firm claim from the beginning about confused identity. But Doris Lessing had done that in the Golden Notebook decades earlier. In Lessing’s five notebooks, first read as I entered womanhood, I recognised I was not alone in grasping after my inchoate thoughts. Possibly Anna in Lessing’s book paralleled my own reality too closely. Belle’s observations in Astley’s book are softened by wry wit and sharpened by an acerbic bite that together create a more comfortable distance for the reader.
Reading Tin River still rewards me. I disappear into the book as Belle descends into her obsession with Gaden Lockyer, a long dead eighteenth century Australian settler. As she disappears, Belle wonders how to explain that ‘I am living out my latest reading matter, a childhood habit carried on through adulthood’. Any book addict will resonate with that feeling of sinking into a world, where past and future cease to exist and the book becomes more real than the present moment.
Reading Barnes after Astley left me dissatisfied. Although I admired his rhetorical talents, my lack of engagement meant I could safely put his book into the pile marked ‘to give away’. Astley was returned, watermarked and age-thumbed, to the shelves. Once there, I glanced from A to B and remembered Possession, A. S. Byatt’s masterpiece that became a well-known film. Possession and Tin River are very different in tone (and weight), but strangely alike at their core; both reveal the way obsession with the past can blur present reality. Both were written by women writers at the height of their powers. As I held them I noticed that both were published in 1990. Like Barnes, Byatt’s book won the Booker prize that year.
Although Astley won the Miles Franklin four times, her work deserves broader international acclaim. Quintessentially Australian in originality, with vibrant writing and driving narratives, Astley holds her own against Barnes, Byatt and many others. She wrote fifteen novels before she died in 2004. Many are still available in print and worth revisiting. Tin River would make an impressive movie – with Toni Collette as Bonnie of course.