Book Review: Hunting the Wild Pineapple, by Thea Astley
Posted on September 29, 2013
This is a marvelous collection, and I cannot believe I’ve lived in Australia for nearly a decade now but not read Thea Astley. I have been missing out. She’s an astonishing writer, in all ways. This set of short stories was published over thirty years ago, but it is fresh and snappy and poignant. I laughed aloud at some parts and got a bit weepy in others.
I cannot seriously recommend any of the stories as better than others, but I do have my favourites: “The Curate Breaker”, “A Northern Belle”, “Ladies Need Only Apply”, and “Write Me, Son, Write Me”. But the other four stories are as beautiful, in their own ways, and “A Man Who’s Tired of Swiper’s Creek is Tired of Living” is one that made my heart catch in my throat. (Before you judge me, read the bit about the elderly lady, far from home and all that is familiar to her, wandering alone and confused on the airstrip tarmac).
A few of the stories invoke elements of the Gothic, akin to what one finds in Jean Rhys’s “The Wide Sargasso Sea”, which I think of as Romantic Gothicism in the West Indies. Also, there’s something about the tone of the narrator, Leverson, whose voice weaves in and out of the stories, as the common thread binding the local characters together, which reminds me vaguely of Tennessee Williams (only straight and Australian, if you can imagine). I see Leverson as someone a bit outside of it all, perhaps in a TW-style elegant white suit and jaunty hat, sipping chilled cocktails and being exceedingly kind and polite, whilst taking mental notes of every passing detail.
In many — or even most — of the stories, there is a sense of isolation and building dread, often due to a felt but not clearly understood menace, and then there are the big and little acts of evil perpetrated by looming characters whom the protagonists are unable to escape — either due to actual or perceived limitations on their own part — and who darken the landscape like an eclipse. I would put two of the most powerful stories in the Tropical Gothic category, for certain: “The Curate Breaker” and “Ladies Need Only Apply”.
(Aside: If you like literary Gothicism — I certainly do — and you want a flavour of how Australian’s handle that, you might enjoy Joan Lindsay’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock”. There are others, I am sure, but that one springs to mind first as outstanding in its ability to evoke all that sense of Gothic creepiness, whilst taking place in the bright sunlight of the Australian bush. Terror in sunlight is an especially clever trick to pull off, I think, when it does not involve crocodiles, snakes, spiders, or the much-maligned-but-mostly-harmless dingo.)
Another feather in Thea Astley’s writing cap is that you cannot predict her — or at least, I could not. She does not necessarily give you the character behaviour, the dialogue, or the endings you expect, but neither does she use cheap tricks to mislead you. She is simply hugely talented and quietly shocking in an era that does not shock easily.
The question I cannot answer, which I would have been able to at one time, is how culturally embedded this book is … by which I mean, do you need to be an Aussie to “get it”? I think not, because the stories are all set in Far North Queensland, which is the tropics, and which is a far cry from the temperate Victorian south, where I live. The people have their own ways up there, just as we do down here, and yet, the stories sing, and go on singing, even to us Southerners.