A spare, sharp-boned bird of a novel, whose song is wrenchingly sad yet full of indomitable spirit. Astley (The Slow Natives, 1993, etc.) writes of old age, of life slipping past and freedom lost, and of loneliness. As Kathleen, dozing and daydreaming her way into decrepitude and oblivion, looks back over her life, the ``pictures came in savagely illuminated splats,'' edged by disappointment and unnameable desire. The setting is Australia, but the vast emptiness surrounding Astley's characters is a symptom of psychology rather than setting. Kathleen recalls her marriage: ``seeking the idyll yet somehow missing it...Solitariness nibbling away even in the middle of parties, dances, pillow-talk.'' Her husband, ``a tensed sales clerk with the distant crazed eyes of a visionary unable to satisfy his yearnings,'' disappeared into the jungle, searching for his ``new Jerusalem,'' then succumbed, quite willingly, to cancer. Then there were--and are--her two children. The monstrously selfish Shamrock (Sham) took a year off to find herself (`` `Where will you look, dear?' Kathleen had asked mildly'') en route to fulfillment as the wife of a crooked politician and hostess of opulent dinner parties. The somewhat less monstrously selfish Brian (Brain) is miserably married, miserably adulterous, and prone to quoting Tennyson over his breakfast bran. Kathleen--except when available to baby-sit--has become nothing but a burden, a threat to her children's cherished, illusory liberty. When Sham dumps her unceremoniously in a retirement community called Passing Downs, Kathleen makes one last dash for her own freedom. ``It's time to go feral,'' she announces to a stranger. ``Tribes of feral grandmothers holed up in the hills, just imagine it, refusing to take on those time-honoured mindings and moppings up after the little ones while the big ones jaunt into the distance.'' Astley is a marvelous writer and a hilarious, merciless, and poignant truth-teller.