As an Australian, I have a strange relationship with “the outback”. I’m definitely more of a city rat than a country mouse, and yet anyone I speak to from overseas seems to expect me to be wearing an Akubra hat and R.M. Williams boots while I traipse around the dry paddocks. As an Australian reader, my relationship with “the outback” in fiction is even stranger. I have a strong bullshit detector, and as soon as writers who have never spent any actual time in “the outback” try to write about it, my eyes start to roll. Even worse, the internet is littered with lists of books set in the Australian outback, put together by people who have no idea what constitutes “the outback” and have never visited beyond the pages of a book (note: Perth, as far away from the Eastern metropolitan centers as it may be, is not “the outback” and books set there definitely don’t count). So, here’s my bonafide list of books set in the Australian outback, written by actual Australians, that actually reflect in some measure rural Australian life.
The Secret River by Kate Grenville
If historical fiction readers are looking for books set in the Australian outback, they must start with The Secret River. It’s an iconic Australian novel, for better or worse, and one of the most popular fictional accounts of the colonial experience in 19th century New South Wales. A thief and his wife are deported to the penal colony, where they expect to build a permanent home and work the land to survive. Doing so, however, means forcibly taking the land from its custodians, the Darug people. The politics and controversies of this novel have been debated endlessly, but what’s unquestioned is its beautifully immersive depiction of the natural landscape around the Hawkesbury River.
The Dry by Jane Harper
Jane Harper’s novels pretty much all follow a theme: crime thriller books set in the Australian outback. She’s best known for her first, The Dry, which introduced the world to her hardened detective Aaron Falk. Falk is drawn back to his (fictional) hometown of Kiewarra, in the middle of an El Niño summer. His childhood friend appears to have shot his wife and son in cold blood before turning the gun on himself, a situation that is sadly becoming increasingly frequent in real rural communities struck by drought. In Harper’s fictional version, however, Falk comes to suspect that a different course of events lead to the deaths of the Hadler family.
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
My Brilliant Career is one of the classic books set in the Australian outback – we love it so much, we honour author Miles Franklin each year with the Miles Franklin Award for Australian fiction. It has the ring of authenticity because Franklin based its characters and outback setting mostly on her own life. The story follows sixteen-year-old Sybylla as she comes of age, and struggles to figure out what exactly it is that she wants – as opposed to what everyone around her believes she should want. Franklin actually withdrew the book from publication until after her death, because the characters she lampooned in fiction recognised themselves IRL. Read my full review of My Brilliant Career here.
Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington
One of the most extraordinary books set in the Australian outback is undoubtedly Doris Pilkington’s Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence (also adapted into a truly excellent and haunting film). It’s a short but powerful story about three Indigenous girls who were taken from their families at Jigalong and taken to the Moore River settlement. They escaped, and followed a rabbit-proof fence over a grueling 1,300km trek to make their way home. The three girls in question were Pilkington’s mother, aunt, and cousin. It’s essential reading, as it makes personal and tangible the horrors of the Stolen Generation.
The Natural Way Of Things by Charlotte Wood
It might not seem like there’s a lot of cross-over between #MeToo literature and books set in the Australian outback, but The Natural Way Of Things falls smack-bang in the middle of that Venn diagram. This dystopian novel begins in a remote facility, deep in the outback, where women are being held in stark rooms, starved and sedated. It takes them a while to figure out what connects them and why they are there: painful events from their past that have rendered them “safer” out of sight (and out of mind).
Terra Nullius by Claire Coleman
I’m surprised that there aren’t more sci-fi or speculative fiction books set in the Australian outback – maybe everyone’s worried about Mad Max comparisons? Claire G Coleman didn’t let that stop her, though. Terra Nullius initially presents as a historical fiction epistolary novel about the colonial invasion of Australia and conflict with the “Natives”. Then, around Chapter 10, it’s revealed to the reader that this is actually a dystopian future, with humans – black and white – are subject to the invasion of an alien species (the “Settlers”). The Australian outback remains real and hauntingly familiar though, with many hurdles for the characters arising from the arid landscape. Read my full review of Terra Nullius here.
The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham
The Dressmaker is maybe better known is a delightful film starring Kate Winslet – but that was based on a slightly-less delightful slightly-more gothic novel by Australian author Rosalie Ham. The story is set in a (fictional) 1950s Australian town, where everyone has names like “Gertrude” and “Muriel”. The protagonist (Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage) returns to take care of her ailing mother. The locals shun her, but Tilly finds one friend in the local cop who likes wearing dresses (of course!). He’s the one who spots her talent for dressmaking. It’s a dark but rich story about cliques, cruelty, and revenge in outback towns. Read my full review of The Dressmaker here.
True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
Ned Kelly, rightly or wrongly, has an inalienable iconic status in Australian history and folklore. As a bushranger, he spent much of his life on the run, pursued by authorities through outback towns. Despite all the theiving and murdering, he became somewhat of a hero to the working classes, an Australian Robin Hood figure who stood his ground against the English colonists. True History Of The Kelly Gang is a reimagining of his life from his own perspective, styled as archived documents and written in Kelly’s idiosyncratic Australian-Irish dialect. Read my full review of True History Of The Kelly Gang here.
The Lost Flowers Of Alice Hart by Holly Ringwald
The Australian outback might look like a barren wasteland to outsiders, but people connected to the land know it to be rich and fertile for the right flora. The Lost Flowers Of Alice Hart uses native flowers as a recurring motif, punctuating the story of a young girl who suffers tragic loss and finds herself adrift. She is raised on her grandmother’s native flower farm, and learns to use flowers to say the things that remain unsaid. As a young adult, after a shocking betrayal, Alice flees to the central Australian desert, where she discovers her story is only just beginning. This is one of the books set in the Australian outback that’s had a bit of a boost lately, thanks to a popular streaming series adaptation.
Taboo by Kim Scott
Australian novelist Kim Scott is a descendant of the Noongar people, an Aboriginal cultural bloc that originated in the south-west corner of Western Australia (from Geraldton on the west coast to Esperance on the south coast). Taboo is a poetic and moving exploration of Scott’s heritage and connection to clan and Country. The story follows a group of Noongar people in the present day, as they are invited to revisit the site of a massacre, a taboo place. The current owner of the land where the blood was shed hopes to cleanse its moral stain, but the sins of the past are not so easily expunged.