As wonderful as it is to travel somewhere new in literature, there’s also something wonderfully comforting reading a home-grown tome. I love reading books by Australian authors, and novels set in Australia. It’s always interesting to see whether they jibe with my lived experience of my home country. Even when they don’t, it’s fun to pick apart the reasons why. Plus, I just really love supporting Australian writers and local publishers; we’ve grown some fantastic literary talent down here at the bottom of the Earth! Here’s a list of 13 must-read books by Australian authors (as composed by an Australian reader – me!).
Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
Picnic At Hanging Rock has one of the most compelling premises in all of Australian literature: in 1900, four school girls go for a picnic at (you guessed it!) Hanging Rock. Three of the girls, and their teacher, mysteriously vanish, into thin air. The remaining girl has no memory of what happened, and no one can work out what has become of those who are missing.
Theories abound, (abduction, assault, murder?) but no one, aside from author Joan Lindsay and her editor, knew for sure… until 1987. See, Lindsay wrote a final chapter solving the mystery, but her editor (quite rightly) pointed out that the book was far more powerful and intriguing without it. Lindsay sat on the chapter, tucked it away in her bottom drawer, until her death. Then it was released as The Secret Of Hanging Rock.
This book has a very dreamy quality, one that translated to the film version released in 1975. In these pages, you’ll also find a few laughs, and – of course – beautiful descriptions of the Australian bush.
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
Miles Franklin is synonymous, in the minds of most Australian readers, with literary accomplishment – not the least because our most prestigious literary award is named in her honour. A second reason, no less impressive, is that she wrote her best-known work, My Brilliant Career, when she was just sixteen years old. With an abundance of admittedly-naive youthful confidence, she sent it to Australian literary giant Henry Lawson, and he fancied it so much that he forwarded it to his own publishers.
Franklin quickly learned a tough lesson: you really need to obfuscate a few more details if you’re going to write autobiographical fiction. My Brilliant Career is the story of Sybylla, a young girl (obviously Franklin’s self-image) growing up in the Australian bush in the early 1900s, with burgeoning feminist ideals and passions. She’s surrounded by parochial chumps who want to keep her from her dreams of a literary career, and force her to settle down into a respectable marriage. Apparently, the real-life inspirations for these characters didn’t take too kindly to Franklin’s depictions of them, and she had to withdraw the book from sale until after her death to end the drama.
Still, we get to read it now, in its full unabashed glory. It has also been made into a film, starring the incomparable Judy Davis, released in 1979. Read my full review of My Brilliant Career here.
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
The Slap does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s the story of a single slap, one man disciplining a child who is not his own at a suburban barbecue, and the repercussions of that one action that reverberate through the lives of all who were present. There are eight main characters, and you get to see a little of the story from each of their perspectives. Tsiolkas pieces these fragments together to form a beautiful, if gritty, whole.
If you’re more familiar with the Liane Moriarty brand of Australian literature, and you’re looking for a book that deals with similar settings and themes from perhaps a more literary bent, this is the book for you. It’s a really powerful exploration of family, domesticity, and loyalty in European-Australian suburbia.
True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
There is perhaps no Australian figure more recognisable than the bushranger Ned Kelly. Every Australian child is forced to learn about Kelly ad nauseam over the course of their standard education. So, in this bold re-imagining of a folk hero’s (or should that be anti-hero?) life, Peter Carey gives a new voice to a deeply familiar character. True History Of The Kelly Gang – an ironic, cheeky title – purports to tell Kelly’s story in his own words, beginning with his birth and ending with the infamous shoot-out at Glenrowan and Kelly’s execution.
This book made a big splash on the international stage. It won the 2001 Booker Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize that same year. I personally loved the stylistic choices that Carey made with expression and grammar; he styled it from the Jerilderie letter, the most famous authentic piece of Kelly’s own writing still in existence, and the similarities are uncanny. If you’re interested in books written in dialect, and not too fussy about (ahem) artistic choices in punctuation and language, then look no further. Read my full review of True History Of The Kelly Gang here.
The Secret River by Kate Grenville
One of my occasional bugbears with Australian literature is that it too-often shies away from our colonial past (and present!), obscuring the historical realities of the wrongs wrought upon our Indigenous population. The success of The Secret River is a small antidote to that horrible literary tradition. In this historical novel, a transported convict by the name of William Thornhill tries to build a life for himself on the Hawkesbury River, where he finds his world colliding with that of the Aboriginal people already living on that land.
Grenville drew inspiration from the stories of her real-life ancestors, and she has described this book as her own attempt to apologise to the Indigenous people of Australia. She certainly doesn’t shy away from the cruelty of the Europeans, and highlights that darkness can even be found in the hearts of people we think are fundamentally good. The Secret River was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2006, and it resonated for many audiences here and abroad. It’s also worth checking out her follow-up, Searching For The Secret River – an exegesis about the process of writing The Secret River and what she learned along the way.
Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington
Of course, it’s absolutely critical that in examining Australia’s colonial past through literature, we push the voices of Indigenous Australians to the front. Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence is Doris Pilkington’s fictional account of a family’s experience as part of the Stolen Generation, including elements from the real lived experience of her own mother. For those of you who are not familiar, the Stolen Generation is the name we use for the forced removal of children from their Aboriginal families in Australia; this happened initially in the early 20th century and, in other ways, continues today.
In this incredible book, three young girls – Molly, Gracie, and Daisy – escape the Moore River Settlement and hike across hundreds of kilometers of desert in the hope of being reunited with their families in Jigalong. They follow the “rabbit proof fence”, a laughably disastrous pest-control effort by the Australian government. The fence stretched over 3,000km (that’s 2,000 miles), and the girls believed it would lead them home. This book was also adapted into a beautiful and devastating film, Rabbit Proof Fence, in 2002.
Blakwork by Alison Whittaker
For a more contemporary Indigenous perspective, Blakwork by Alison Whittaker is a must-read. It was released just last year, but I’ve been following Whittaker’s work for a while and I can promise you she’s one of the most powerful voices against Indigenous oppression in this country.
Blakwork is part memoir, part journalism, part fiction, part satire, part legal document, part social commentary, and somehow more than all of those things combined in poetry. She divides the text into fifteen sections, most of which center around the theme of a specific type of work (thus, the collection’s name). She writes with piercing and unflinching honesty, raging at times, about the experience of a queer Gomeroi woman. She challenges the white Australian legacy, covering everything from the Stolen Generation to deaths in custody to hate crime to stereotypes of rural Indigenous communities. She attacks myths and power structures at every turn, and it’s incredible to witness. I challenge you to read this book and not feel overwhelmingly moved.
Looking For Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta
I was asked recently which book spoke most to my own experience of living in Sydney and Australia, and this is the first one that came to mind. Granted, that’s probably because it’s the one I’ve read and re-read the most; my high-school copy of Looking For Alibrandi is so worn that the spine has all but fallen apart.
It’s a coming-of-age novel, so it covers all the Big Themes of love and loss and belonging, but above and beyond that it has a lot to say about the lives of migrant families and their children, and how racial and ethnic identities intersect with class. If you went to school in Australia, chances are you had to read this one at some point over the course of your secondary education; trust me, it’s worth pulling it up again and taking another look. For international readers, this is a great one to read if you want to get a feel for the experience of urban Australian teens in the ’90s.
No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani
I’m not sure there has ever been such a controversial choice for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. Earlier this year, Behrouz Boochani got the gong for his incredible book No Friend But The Mountains, and the criticism was swift (also completely unjust, and laughably out-of-touch).
If you’re not familiar with Behrouz’s work: he’s a Kurdish journalist who was detained on Manus Island for seeking asylum in Australia, where he remains (I highly recommend following him on Twitter for real-time updates). “He’s not Australian!” the critics cried when his book won a prestigious literary prize for Australian authors. Perhaps they’re right on a technicality, but he has been imprisoned on Manus at the whim of the Australian government for years. In my view, that makes this book perhaps the most important non-fiction Australian story of my generation. He wrote the entire thing via WhatsApp messages, a lyrical firsthand account of his indefinite (and ongoing!) imprisonment, translated by Omid Tofighian. It’s a must-read for all Australians, now and in the future (when, hopefully, our system of detention will be a sad relic of our past ignorance).
I also recommend another poetic account of life in detention by Mohammed Ali Maleki. He wrote his collection, Truth In The Cage, while detained on Manus. It was translated by fellow detainee Mansour Shoushtari, and published by an incredible local team at Verity La.
The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke
Another one of my Twitter favourites, Maxine Beneba Clarke, is perhaps best-known for her wonderful poetry. That said, I personally consider her memoir, The Hate Race, to be essential reading. It’s an account – sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart-breaking – about growing up black, the child of black Afro-Caribbean immigrants, in white middle-class suburban Australia. One of the opening chapters, where she describes her parents arriving in their new country and reeling at the overtly racist place and product names (not to mention being directed towards the cask wine in the liquor shop), has stuck with me to this day. I hear this one is often assigned in high schools now, which is fantastic to see!
No More Boats by Felicity Castagna
I love, love, love the premise of this book! No More Boats is set in 2001, around the time of the Tampa crisis (as we now call it), when 438 refugees were stranded on a boat off the Australian coast. It was a critical moment in Australia’s migrant history, one that continues to impact our policy and public discourse on the subject to this day (though at the time it was quickly overshadowed by the events of September 11).
Unfolding at the same time is the story of Antonio, a migrant man forced into early retirement after a terrible accident on his work site. His life unravels as the Tampa crisis intensifies. It’s a realistic historical fiction story, but history so recent it can’t help but echo in your brain when you think about what’s happening in Australia today. It really highlights our collective cognitive dissonance around refugees, in a way that is as emotive as a gut-punch.
This House Of Grief by Helen Garner
Helen Garner is the darling of Australian literature, and if you come across any list of best Australian books that doesn’t include her, you should disregard it because it is woefully incomplete. Really, any of her books could be rightfully included here, but because I’m a true-crime junkie I’ve chosen This House Of Grief.
The process of writing this book eerily mirrors that of Truman Capote writing In Cold Blood. Garner saw a breaking news update that a man had driven his children into a dam on Father’s Day. This led her to attend his seven-week trial, then to years of research, and ultimately to several drafts of a book documenting the entire sad tale. It’s a heart-wrenching account, and Garner has spoken often of how difficult it was for her to write, but I am eternally grateful that she persisted. This House Of Grief is a masterpiece of true crime, and of literary non-fiction more broadly.
The Dry by Jane Harper
To round out this list, let’s look at Jane Harper, one of the best-selling Australian novelists of the last few years. In an odd combination of many elements from other Australian books on this list, The Dry is a fictional story set in the bush, where a retired Australian Federal Police officer sets about trying to solve the murder of his childhood friend. The story unfolds against a vivid backdrop of drought and rural hardship, an all-too-familiar setting for many Australians. It’s twisty, it’s turny, it’s gripping, and it’s delightful. Harper has also since released a sequel, and a third (unrelated) book. I’m sure we’ll see much more from her in the years to come.
What are your favourite Australian books? Drop your suggestions in the comments below (or over on the Keeping Up With The Penguins Facebook page), so we can make this a real compendium of awesome Australian literature!