The Acolyte – Thea Astley

The AcolyteI chose The Acolyte as my first stab at a Thea Astley novel. For someone who was so prolific, she’s not particularly well known in Australia. She wrote 15 novels between 1958 and 1999, won the Miles Franklin award four times, more than any other writer (I think) and was writing and publishing at a time in Australia when not many women were. She’s renowned for being a ‘metaphoric’ and ‘difficult’ writer, so I wanted to see what her writing is like.

The Acolyte is the story of Jack Holgate, a blind pianist, who after a successful stint composing in Europe, returns home to fawning accolades and success. Its set, like all of Astley’s books, in Queensland, this time somewhere near the Gold Coast.

The acolyte is Paul Vesper, the first person narrator, who has known Holgate before he was rich and famous, and who gives up his respectable job as an engineer to move in with Holgate, and the fawning admirers he’s gathered around him. There’s Hilda, his long-suffering wife, her sister Ilsa and Holgate’s Aunt Sadie, easily the best character in the book, a crazy old gal who loves a punt, gets around in a red wig to cover her balding head and wears a cowgirl outfit.

Vesper, who is also a reasonable musician, helps Holgate with the composing and runs around collecting things for him and acting as chauffeur and general odd job man. They all live together in a ‘glass box’ of a house surrounded by a lush tropical garden. The heat and tropical excesses of Queensland are vividly evoked and the rot starts to set in with this little coterie around Holberg, none of whom seem to have to power to cut themselves free and leave. The problem is that Holberg is a monster, treating them, especially Hilda, appallingly.

The characterisation is the strength of this book, but unfortunately its hard to enjoy because none of the characters are very likeable. This always seems a risky strategy to me and one that biting, sarcastic writers often use. And the ‘metaphoric’ stuff is hard to take at times as well. Helen Garner apparently said about another Astley book – “Great story, great characters … Stylistically, however, this book is like a very handsome, strong and fit woman with too much makeup on … This kind of writing drives me berserk”.

Like this for example – ‘This morning, that morning, was honeycombed with personal restlessness. Evening swells up in lavender, blue, black in these parts, the twenty-thousand-fathom sea of acceptance and a sort of timeless soothing, only to be worried out of its mind by a scratch-rash epidemic of star-white.

I think I see what Helen Garner means. But then there’s some brilliant biting one-liners, like Vesper describing his Rotarian dad when the great composer comes to visit – ‘Jack had never been invited there before but father’s presidency of Rotary plus his frequently uttered philosophy that it took all kinds would tide him over meetings with millionaires and strippers.’ She’s absolutely vicious about the ‘Arts Council wives’ that hover around Holberg. But the undertone of parental disappointment that follows Vesper around is really heartbreaking.

Anyway, not sure I’d recommend this one unless you really love extreme metaphors but the characterisation is good, there’s some funny lines, and its only 158 pages long.