When I travelled to North Queensland’s Palm Island, in 2005, to attend an inquest into a death in custody, I was venturing into Manbarra country and a story Thea Astley could have written. “If you happened upon this island,” she’d declared of Doebin, Palm’s fictional equivalent, “your eyes gummed to this mountain humped with riffled reef waters, you would be enchanted by that necklace of white beaches, foliage growing to the sea … palms waving casual welcome feathers”. Astley had a fascination with the fecundity and the rot of tropical life, with small communities where agoraphobia and claustrophobia commingle, and the spiritual decay that is a side effect of colonisation. She wrote of hard cases, misfits “living on a cyclonic edge”. And Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley – the very tall, very broad, some said charismatic policeman suspected of killing Cameron Doomadgee in the local police station – was a perfect Astley character.
But of course, the writer had already explored parallel events. Her 1996 novel, The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, is based on an incident that took place on the Palm Island Mission 65 years earlier. In 1930, the island’s superintendent, Robert Curry, caught in the grip of psychosis, went on a murderous rampage. Curry, a Kurtz-like figure known to the Palm Islanders as “Boss” or “Uncle Boss”, was an ex-army man: a veteran of the Great War who oversaw the settlement of the island throughout the 1920s, establishing it as a kind of open-air jail for Aborigines who had proved “troublesome” on Queensland’s regular reserves.
The Aboriginal detainees cleared the land and erected buildings without even a horse or dray, and when eventually a dray came – with no horse – Uncle Boss Curry ordered the men to haul it themselves. He introduced gardening competitions, European dancing – so as to discourage traditional ceremonial dances – and a jazz band; those who failed to attend band practice could find themselves locked up.
As one of the island’s officials noted, “Mr Curry practically regarded this settlement as a child of his brain.” When rumours spread on the mainland that he was flogging young Aboriginal women, Curry suspected his rivals were trying to undermine him. Not that the allegations were false: without these whippings, he told his superiors, his “authority … would have been weakened”. He’d turned tyrannical in a place he described as akin to “living on the rim of a volcano”.
Curry hated the Palm Island doctor, an enmity that intensified when Curry’s wife died in childbirth. Drinking heavily in his grief, and dosed with novocaine for neuralgia, the superintendent donned a long red bathing suit and a bullet belt, and, with a gun in each hand, went berserk. First, he dynamited his own house with his drugged children inside, then he went out to shoot the doctor and burn down the settlement buildings: to kill the child of his brain. As the buildings burned, white staff gave a gun to a young Aboriginal man, Peter Prior, and deputised him to shoot Curry – and then they hid.
In The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, Curry becomes Captain Brodie; Peter Prior is Manny Cooktown; and Palm Island, Doebin Island.
“Time!” rapped out the superintendent, remembering the Somme. He stood ridiculously to attention on the empty beach, presenting arms in his long, shapeless bathing suit. He blinked and found … the beach empty except for the dot-pictures painted by rain …
Between body-rack and head-split he could not think beyond carnage …
Then Manny Cooktown, his fishing-boy, hunter and shooter, pride of his football team, stepped cautiously from behind the trees and yelled his predigested migaloo command, “Put your gun down, Uncle Boss, or I fire.”
Astley’s fascination with the Australian Gothic was influenced by the Southern Gothic of American writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, whose works explore damaged characters against a background of racial inequality. Astley transposed this sensibility to northern Queensland. The rainshadow – the dry western side of the Great Dividing Range – became a metaphor in her writing for the spiritual aridity that can affect those in the pall of the violent frontier. Many of the white inhabitants of Doebin end up after the Brodie affair making their lives in these hinterlands. Her characters all display the “multiple effects” of being in places they don’t necessarily want to be and where they don’t belong: frustration, shame, ennui, thwarted desire.
Trapped by a brutal system of apartheid, Astley’s people take their pleasures or consolations where they can. The novelist has an extraordinary eye for the banalities of lives surrounded by evil. Take, for example, her gorgeously rendered Christmas party: the white staff drunk “amid the claustrophobic socialising and the ragged streamers and tinsel and cotton-wool snow of Christmastide stuck up here in the melting tropics”; “rattan deckchairs bulging under the bums of staff and wives” in the “hot darkness”; a record playing, which “distorted [the] carol singers like a bad joke”. The superintendent, meanwhile, is aware only of his “aloneness and this bursting skull that paralleled the build-up”.
The novelist takes the juice of history and serves it to us fresh. She was interested in burnt-out cases, those afflicted with what she called “petrification of the spirit”: people who live in their “own mini-hells”. And Astley extended to them her great understanding. She claimed her work was “a plea for charity … to be accorded to those not ruthless enough or grand enough to be gigantic tragic figures”. In other words, Captain Brodie was perhaps as much a victim of the foetid, repressive atmosphere on Doebin – an atmosphere he had helped create – as anyone else.
How much sympathy one extends to the superintendent may depend on how one feels about the treatment of Manny Cooktown, or indeed Peter Prior.
In 1930, Prior, after being deputised to shoot the rampaging Palm Island superintendent, was charged with his murder and locked up for six months. In Straight from the Yudaman’s Mouth (1993), a book he collaborated on with his daughter Renarta, Prior recalled his time in jail:
The days were not too bad … but from my first night out there all of my nightmares began. It was very lonely in the cell at night, I was missing my family and when I finally dozed off to sleep, I would see Mr Curry’s face and it was always the same dream. Even now, I can see him lying on the beach in pain and just staring at me.
At trial, Prior was found not guilty, but for the rest of his life he would continue to dream of Uncle Boss Curry. The journalist Tony Koch told me he interviewed Prior when the Palm Islander was very elderly and both his legs had been amputated due to diabetes. Prior started crying because he was scared to die. God commanded, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” and he had.
The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow opens with Manny Cooktown’s point of view, and his perspective continues in italicised sections that are interspersed between Astley’s more nuanced exploration of Doebin’s white characters. The extent to which the novel succeeds will therefore hinge on the reader’s sense of Manny Cooktown’s voice: “An he scared too an he fire … see big red blotch on Boss’s belly and the blood spreadin and he cry and say, Sorry Uncle Boss. Real sorry.”
Astley is impeccably sensitive to the horrors of the frontier – she had an abiding hatred of the way Indigenous Australians are treated. But this is a colonial book. It describes, from the point of view of the coloniser, the psychological scars of slavery and segregation. And what if an unintended rainshadow effect is the replication of this power structure within the novel itself? The sections written in the cadences of Aboriginal Australian English will strike some contemporary readers as evocative and deeply poetic, but others will regard the style as unfortunate cultural appropriation. Is this the quagmire into which non-Indigenous writers can always so easily tread, replicating the inequities we are critiquing?
In the final chapter, Astley develops a previously minor character, Manny Cooktown’s son Normie. A politically astute child then man, Normie has been educated at a mainland boarding school before returning to the oppressive conditions of Doebin. He receives a letter from his former teacher Mr Vine, who suggests Normie keep a diary so that the events on the island don’t lose their reality for him over time, and become “as fiction … fragile and unmemorable”.
“Fuckin fiction!” Normie responds, before writing a one-sentence reply:
This fiction, it don’t go away.
Astley seems to be issuing a disclaimer to any complaints time may throw her way.
The novelist, by following decades of history, quietly captures the way cycles of repression keep repeating. The novel ends with a brutal government response to the islanders’ strike over conditions and pay, which took place on Palm in 1957. Like William Faulkner – who knew about the brutalities of segregation – Astley knew the past is never dead and buried. This tale would keep looping on.
Thea Astley died, after a prolific and celebrated career, in August 2004.
Four months later, on Palm Island, a local man named Cameron Doomadgee swore at Senior Sergeant Hurley, the island’s officer-in-charge, and within 40 minutes he was dead on a cell floor with a black eye, a bruised jaw, and a ruptured liver and portal vein. On a cell surveillance tape he is shown writhing on the concrete floor, calling for help; and when eventually an officer does come in, he kicks Doomadgee; then, kicking him again, realises the man is dead.
What followed was a farcical investigation conducted by Hurley’s friends and apologists in the Queensland Police Service. The senior sergeant claimed he and Doomadgee had both tripped over a step and landed side by side. Only later, when he learnt the extent of Doomadgee’s injuries, did Hurley change his story – he must have landed on the prisoner with a knee in his abdomen, then forgotten all about it.
Two and a half years later, Hurley was tried for manslaughter – an uncanny reversal of the Peter Prior trial. In court, Hurley’s lawyers admitted that he was physically responsible for Doomadgee’s death, but claimed that the fatal injuries had been accidentally administered.
Hurley, in the witness stand – and in his police interviews – never gave a sign of regret or remorse. Two metres tall, with stony features and hair parted down the centre, he looked like a man if not from the First World War generation, like Curry, then from the Second. He cut a figure from an era before voting rights, before land rights, before reconciliation. In appearing to be from an earlier time, he was utterly of his time: a Howard-era man who would never say sorry. In the smelter of white guilt and sorrow and resentment and confusion, he was cast as an underdog. The jury acquitted Hurley, although it seemed he was not so much found not guilty as forgiven.
Our past is a long way from being past, and Astley understood that this is the rainshadow we all still live under.
Chloe Hooper is the author of several books, including A Child’s Book of True Crime and The Tall Man. Her latest book, The Arsonist, is out now.
When I travelled to North Queensland’s Palm Island, in 2005, to attend an inquest into a death in custody, I was venturing into Manbarra country and a story Thea Astley could have written. “If you happened upon this island,” she’d declared of Doebin, Palm’s fictional equivalent, “your eyes gummed to this mountain humped with riffled reef waters, you would be enchanted by that necklace of white beaches, foliage growing to the sea … palms waving casual welcome feathers”. Astley had a fascination with the fecundity and the rot of tropical life, with small communities where agoraphobia and claustrophobia commingle, and the spiritual decay that is a side effect of colonisation. She wrote of hard cases, misfits “living on a cyclonic edge”. And Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley – the very tall, very broad, some said charismatic policeman suspected of killing Cameron Doomadgee in the local...