Drylands the small outback town is dry – dry from drought and dry from a lack of opportunity, of growth, of regeneration. “Drylands” the book is nothing like that at all.

“Drylands” is the rich telling of the stories of comings and stayings and goings from the small town. The voices are as diverse as the characters. Time goes forwards and backwards and around again. There is a cup of tea for every occasion, and a beer for the rest.

Drylands is no place for a woman. And while the men certainly do better in this isolated dot on the map, their choice of coping methods – from alcohol to abuse to dreaming to delusion – perhaps leaves them personally no better in the end. People with open minds find nothing to feed them in this part of the world so it is those with small minds that do best, and the traditional image of ocker man, with his love of beer with a meal of meat and three veg is portrayed as the man with the smallest mind of all.

Not all of the men are bad, and bad isn’t even the right word – perhaps devoid of the opportunity or need to change ‘ist’ world views that were more common fifty years ago (racist, misogynist, sexist, you get the idea) would be more accurate.On the other hand, they know that while they stay in this town, there won’t be a need to change.

As a reader beware of the men that aren’t like that, the one’s that can see beyond the horizon, for they are the men likely to break your heart. Well two of them especially. It would be a spoiler to add more.

The women who live in Drylands are like the gardens that many of them try and cultivate – surviving but only just. There aren’t enough women left in the town for them to have real friendships – a bad word against one might see you with no friends left. And so they fall into routines with the other women in the same way they have routines for the rest of their lives of working and cooking and cleaning and mothering. Some still have dreams, only to see them go. Others are only dreaming within the very contained options provided by their husbands.  Every now and then you meet someone with a dream of a life that could be, and one that just might work.

Just as there is a range of characters, the reader should prepare themselves to experience a range of responses. A short book yes, but powerfully written and there will be laughter and disgust and tears.

The outback of Australia is a wide open space and within that space, a wide range of people and experiences await. Astley’s “Drylands” is a long way from the romantic view of many and if for no other reason, is a must read.

“Drylands” was the winner of the 2000 Miles Franklin Award.

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