Kathleen Hackendorf is the funny, strong heroine of Thea Astley’s Coda, a book built around two eternal questions, "What are we going to do with Mother?" and, from the elderly person’s point of view, "What am I going to do with myself?" Kathleen wants to remain on her own despite her growing awareness of her frailties. But when she begins getting lost and when the government requires her house as right-of-way for a road, Kathleen calls on her children for help.

They, who she says have "the empathy of a piranha" (164), will not take her in; Sham and her husband finally "book" Kathleen into a retirement village called Passing Downs, which Kathleen describes as "fucking awful" (169), where she stays, wreaking havoc at every opportunity, for two nights. We last see her wandering the city, being mugged, and, finally, literally and metaphorically, "taking the ferry to the island."


Each part of Coda is prefaced by a newspaper item describing "granny dumping"; in part two, Kathleen, the main character, sees an elderly man mauled in broad daylight; in part three she is mugged on a Brisbane street. Kathleen spends her days wandering; in a mall she holds conversations with her friend Daisy, now dead, a woman who’d also loved laughter and honesty. Kathleen’s children--daughter Sham (short for Shamrock) and Brian, whose nickname is "Brain" (". . . if you pronounce Brian with a flattened Aussie accent," says Beverly Lowry in a New York Times Book Review article (Oct. 2, 1994), "it comes out that way practically on its own")--might love her but don’t want her to live with them. Brian feels guilty when Kathleen leaves after a visit; he’s also relieved. He doesn’t ask what Sham has planned for Kathleen’s future.

No summary can do justice to this small book whose writing is compressed, witty, aphoristic, and memorable. Allusions to music, art, and literature enrich; one can almost feel the damp, windless days and see the streets bubbling in the heat of a place like Hell, which, according to my grandmother--who NEVER cursed--is what old age is. Because we come to admire Kathleen, Coda helps us both recognize and care about problems associated with growing old. But Astley’s book also gives us an example of an individual who refuses to be "rendered invisible . . . by her age" (175), a woman who is determined to live life to its fullest despite its difficulties.


G. P. Putnam's Sons

Place Published

New York



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