Thea Astley’s An Item from the Late News: A Fictional Fifth Gospel


Commentators have been quick to recognise Wafer, Item’s protagonist, as a Christ-figure, and to discuss aspects of what Roslynn Haynes perceived to be a ‘plethora of religious and universal imagery’. Another critical stream has focused on aspects of the novel’s feminism that oppose the masculinist industrial complex. This article contends that an ambiguous exploration of Christian faith and hope, conducted in a context of profound human suffering and moral failure, is central to An Item from the Late News.

Wafer’s story offers eccentric and disorderly parallels to episodes in the Gospels before climaxing with a brutality comparable to the crucifixion. Yet the aftermath, an unrealised resurrection, connotes agnosticism. Wafer and his female ‘disciples’ Gabby and Emmie are eccentric renditions of Gospel figures who reflect their originals more closely than previous commentary has acknowledged. Above all, Item debates Christian faith through dense clusters of figures that surface throughout the text. They include Christmas; circles in place and time; the moon and the communion wafer; fire and light; darkness, hell and horned devils; Wafer’s sapphire; nakedness; and nothingness. Some clusters, notably circles with their connotations of infinity, make the transition into metaphysics. In sum, events, characterisation and figures uphold Astley’s claim, in a private letter, that she wrote An Item from the Late News ‘with a longing for Christian ideals’.

Thea Astley published An Item from the Late News in 1982, near the middle of her seventeen-book fiction-writing career. She composed the novel, which is set in and around a dry inland town, while living in the Kuranda rainforest, one of the ‘lush coast nirvanas’ (3) that Item’s narrator Gabby Jerrold repudiates as ‘green tedium’ and ‘the very heart of boredom’ (7). The novel’s critical reception has been diverse. In an early review, Greg Houghton remarked on ‘the extraordinary and on the whole easily handled mythic and symbolic resonances and structures at work in the novel’ (226). Dorothy Jones later analysed it as a challenge to ‘the Australian male myth’ (73) while Roslynn Haynes explicated the ‘plethora of religious and universal imagery’ centred on the protagonist Wafer as a Christ-figure (140). Indignant, however, at what he saw as ‘this profanation of things sacred,’ Robert Ross characterised Item as ‘a…

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Published 29 October 2020 in Volume 35 No. 2. Subjects: Australian women writers, Poetic inspiration, Symbolism, Thea Astley, Christian Imagery, Augustine, Catholicism.

Cite as: Taylor, Cheryl . ‘Thea Astley’s An Item from the Late News: A Fictional Fifth Gospel.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, 2020, doi: 10.20314/als.ba649b668f.