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Though something of a literary celebrity in Australia, and regularly published in Britain, Astley's only mainstream US appearance was back in 1967--with her fourth novel, the impressive and affecting The Slow Natives. And though this new, eighth novel flares with verbal talent, with a kind of relentless integrity, it's probably too quirky--and too crude-yet-blurry in its theme--to bring Astley a wider American readership. The narrator here is arch, sarcastic, oblique Gabby, a painter who, in reaction against her boring upper-middle family, has been through marriage, affairs, bohemianism, and a breakdown: ""The inner country where I keep my screwed up rag of self with its primitive wants and silent expressive yowls, has been invaded by a succession of spongers who take my talent, however minuscule, onto their tote-trays and flog it about like choc ice."" Now, back in her home-town of Allbut, a former mining center that's become a near-ghost town ""in our continental funkerama,"" Gabby is oddly entranced by a newcomer named Wafer--an overage hippie whose only goal is to find ""the perfect bomb shelter."" (His father was a WW II bomb fatality; he's obsessed with Hiroshima.) But Wafer's quiet quest on the town's outskirts will be doomed--by the town's greed and hypocrisy and violence, by Gabby's own self-involved apathy: Wafer is terrorized by a local macho-thug; his fatherly affection for a teenage girl (the thug's rape victim) is used against him. And when Wafer happens to find a precious stone on one of his wanderings, the town will stop at nothing to learn the location of this possible new gem-lode. . . with a predictably fatal outcome. As in her previous work, Astley is romanticizing the misfit/outcast here--especially when she drops allusions along the way that suggest Wafer/Christ parallels. And Gabby's narration, though dotted with sparks of rough poetry and sardonic comedy, is too often self-consciously slangy or artsy. Still, adventurous readers may want to tackle this dense socio-philosophical fable--for its undeniable intensity, for the moments when Astley's lashing prose is controlled enough to produce grimly atmospheric or bitterly humorous effects.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1983
Publisher: Univ. of Queensland Press (5 S. Union St., Lawrence, MA 01843)