10 of my favourite novels from Australia

10-booksDespite growing up in Australia and spending the first 29 years of my life there, I can’t say I’m very well read as far as Australian fiction is concerned. I do miss the “Australiana” sections that are found in pretty much every Aussie bookstore. This means I usually stock up on Aussie literature whenever I go home, because it’s often hard to get on this side of the world, unless, of course, the novelist pens international bestsellers.

Here’s my list of favourite Australian fiction books, written by Australian authors and set in Australia (in alphabetical order by author’s name):

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail (1998)

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail

This is a wonderful fable-like story, set in rural NSW, in which a man plants hundreds of different species of gum trees on his farm. When he announces that his 19-year-old daughter, Ellen, can marry the first man to name all the species correctly, a series of would-be suitors from around the world turn up, but many are more interested in the challenge than the prize. Set under the searing light of the unrelentless Australian sun, this story reads like a magical fairytale about love, destiny and nature.

This book won the 1999 Commonwealth Writers Prize and the 1999 Miles Franklin Award.

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (1988)

Oscar-and-lucinda

This unforgettable book set in mid-19th century Australia is a rollicking good adventure story that combines old-fashioned romance with history, humour and religious piety. The two characters — Oscar, an Oxford clergyman, and Lucinda, an orphaned heiress — both share a penchant for gambling. Together, they make the biggest gamble on earth: to transport a crystal palace of a church across the harsh and dangerous Australian bush without destroying it in the process.

I’ve read a handful of Carey books, but this one stands out in my memory the most. The characters are wonderfully realised, strong and believable, and the descriptions of the Australian bush and life at that time in history are pitch-perfect. The 1997 film, starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett, is a very good adaptation.

This book won the 1988 Booker Prize, the 1988 Miles Franklin Award and the 1989 National Book Council’s Banjo Award.

The Second Bridegroom by Rodney Hall (1991)

The Second Bridegroom by Rodney Hall

Hall’s novel, the second in the Yandilli Trilogy, is a classic of the Australian convict genre. In this dark, but spellbinding book, a young convict escapes his captors and finds himself on the run in the unfamiliar Australian bush. He is adopted by a tribe of aboriginals, who revere him as a kind of mythical creature. But the narrator remains a solitary being who wanders dreamlike through the landscape for two years, before being recaptured.

I read this shortly after publication because it had attracted a lot of media publicity. The writing was poetic and lyrical, but the mood of the book was almost Gothic, dark and claustrophobic in places.

While this book did not win any awards, it was critically acclaimed for its exploration of universal themes: civilisation, exile, justice and our need for human companionship.

My Brother Jack by George Johnston (1964)

My Brother Jack by George Johnston

My Brother Jack is my favourite book of all time. As a person who never re-reads books (there’s too many other unread tomes to make my way through), I have made an exception for this one and have read it several times now. I first read it as a teenager (it was on my school syllabus), then again in my twenties and more recently in my thirties. I particularly identify with the narrator, David Meredith, because he is a journalist who becomes an expat Australian, which is kind of the story of my life too.

Essentially it’s a tale about two brothers who grow up in suburban Melbourne between World I and II. The elder brother, Jack Meredith, is the epitome of the macho Aussie male who is full of bravado and wants nothing more than to fight for his country, while David, the narrator, is more introverted, unsure of himself and lacks self esteem. Ironically, it is David who gets to see the frontline as a celebrated war correspondent
while Jack, through one misfortune after another, never passes his army medical.

This book has been described as a quintessential Australian novel which explores two Australian myths, that of the man who loses this soul as he gains wordly success, and that of tough, honest, Aussie battler, whose greatest ambition is to serve his country.

This book won the 1964 Miles Franklin Award. George Johnston died in 1970.

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay (1967)

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

If you’ve ever seen the 1975 Peter Weir film of this book, then you will know this story is very atmospheric, if slightly creepy. It’s about a party of schoolgirls who go on a picnic to Hanging Rock, a real-life sacred aboriginal site near Mt Macedon in Victoria, on Valentine’s Day 1900. During the picnic four girls mysteriously disappear when they explore the rock.

Despite the fact that there is no satisfactory conclusion to this intriguing mystery, it’s a cracking read. One of the best things about this book is Lindsay’s evocative descriptions of the Australian landscape and wildlife.

A final “secret” chapter was published in 1987, which supposedly solved the mystery of the girls’ disappearance. But I never bothered to read it, because I quite liked the idea that it was up to the reader to figure out what happened; it was part of Picnic at Hanging Rock‘s charm.

1915 by Roger McDonald (1979)

1915 by Roger McDonald

This debut novel explores the seminal year in Australia’s history, the year that gave birth to the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corp) legend that endures to this day. It’s essentially about two boys from the bush, shy Walter and extroverted Billy, who sign up to fight in the Great War on the other side of the world. It’s a moving and passionate story that mirrors Australia’s coming of age, and when I read this book as a 16-year-old I was completely smitten by the whole drama and romance of it.

It was made into a popular television mini-series in the mid 1980s.

The Great World by David Malouf (1990)

The Great World by David Malouf

The blurb on the back of this book sums it up better than I ever could: “Every city, town and village has its memorial to war.  Nowhere are these monuments more eloquent than in Australia, generations of whose young men have enlisted to fight other people’s battles — from Gallipoli and the Somme to Malaya and Vietnam.  In The Great World, his finest novel yet, David Malouf gives a voice to that experience.”

Essentially The Great World is about two men, Vic and Digger, who become POWs during the Second World War and how that soul-destroying experience affects the rest of their lives. It is, above all else, a tale of mateship and a study of human nature under extreme conditions.

When I read this in my mid-twenties the story stunned me. It was the first time I’d ever read a book about men living under such brutal conditions; these were the men of my grandfather’s generation, who still lived and walked among us. There’s one particular scene in this book which remains with me more than a decade after having read it: of a POW guiltily gulping down food that does not belong to him while eyeballing his mate who has caught him in the act. That one scene says so much about the human condition, it still makes me cringe with a kind of knowing embarrassment.

This book won the 1991 Miles Franklin Award, the 1991 Commonwealth Writers Prize and the 1991 Prix Fémina Etranger.


The Harp in the South
by Ruth Park (1948)

The Harp in the South by Ruth Park

This is one of those books every Australian teenager is made to read at school. Set at the end of the Second World War, it chronicles the ups and downs of an Irish Catholic family living in an inner-Sydney slum among the razor gangs, brothels and grog shops. The main character, Rosie Darcy, falls in love and makes something of herself despite the sadness, despair, violence and poverty that fills her existence.

I’ve included this on my list, because I think it provides an interesting glimpse of the immigrant experience at an important time in Australia’s history.

This book, which is a trilogy, was made into a mini-series. Ruth Park, a New Zealander by birth, was an incredibly prolific author, writing both adult and children’s fiction, including the much-loved Muddle-headed Wombat series.

Tree of Man by Patrick White  (1955)

Tree of Man by Patrick White

This is an extraodinary story about ordinary people living on the edge of the Australian wilderness at the turn of the 19th century. Stan Parker and his wife Amy are pioneers struggling to survive the harsh environment. The novel follows their ups and downs, highs and lows, their triumphs and disappointments. The great beauty of Tree of Man is that it provides the most enlightening glimpse of a past way of life and chronicles the achievements of Australia’s pioneers in a non-glorifed but totally real way.

I have to admit that when I read this circa 1990, it took me two goes because at almost 500 pages it seemed so impenetrable, the writing was also very dense and heavy, while the lack of plot was a challenge. But perserverance paid off, and when I eventually finished it I felt genuinely sad that this lovely family saga had come to an end.

Patrick White was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973; he died in 1990.

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton (1991)

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Cloudstreet refers to a broken down house on the wrong side of the tracks in Perth, Western Australia, the most isolated city on earth. But when two rural families, the Lambs and the Pickles, move into the ricketty old structure they turn the place into a home against all odds.

The story follows their complicated soap-opera-ish lives over the course of 20 years, and it is, by turns, funny and heartbreakingly sad.

This book received huge publicity upon publication and Winton, who was born in 1960, was hailed as Australia’s new literary hero at a time when there didn’t seem to be any new, young writers around.

This book won the 1992 Miles Franklin Award.

Have you read any of these books? If so, what did you think of them? Do you agree/disagree with my choices? Are there any other Australian books that you think are worth including on this list?

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65 thoughts on “10 of my favourite novels from Australia

  1. I’m busy jotting down your list. I’ve heard of some of these books and they’ve been on my to read list for a while. Authors I’ve read are Malouf and Winton.

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  2. I’ve not read any of these books, but I did see the movie ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, which was fascinating, beautiful, haunting.
    Was ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’ by an Aussie author? I read that book, and enjoyed it very much. I’ve also enjoyed books by Nevil Shute. Was he Australian? I’m not sure.
    Oh yes, and the book about ‘Breaker Morant’; I loved that one, too.

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  3. Kim,
    Thanks for sharing your favourite novels about Australia. Like Patricia, I’ve not read any of these novels but I did see the movies, Oscar and Lucinda and Picnic at Hanging Rock. My interest is definitely piqued after reading your summary of each book – enough so that I want to read all ten books!

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  4. Cloudstreet and Eucalyptus are amongst my all time favourite books. I once even tried to buy the rights to film Cloudstreet from Tim Winton. At the time just for a 1st draft script he was asking for over $100,000. He is pure genius.
    My Brother Jack was part of my high school syllabus reading. It’s a great book.
    Harp in the South was always an interesting read for me, especially so as my grandparents lived in Surry Hills, my Mum was born in her house she lives in today in Surry Hills and I grew up there.
    Never finished Oscar & Lucinda, and I attempted it twice. I can see it in my bookshelf right now so maybe I’ll give it another go.
    1915 touched my heart deeply. I remember sobbing uncontrollably as a teenager in my bedroom reading this.
    A couple of my other favourites are Tracks by Robyn Davidson and My Place by Sally Morgan.

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  5. Are you not a fan of My Brilliant Career, or could you just not squeeze it in?
    Sorry to say they pulled the pin on the film version of Eucalyptus, which was to have been directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, supposedly because co-star Russell Crowe panned the script.

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  6. Forgot to say – if you want to try some more contemporary Oz fiction you might like Elliot Perlman – 3 dollars and seven types of ambiguity. They recently made quite a good film of 3 dollars with David Wenham.

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  7. iliana and maureen, hope you both find this a useful list – would love to hear what you think about any of these books if you happen to read them.
    Patricia, The Year of the Living Dangerously was a book, which I vaguely remember reading in my late teens. And I did seriously consider including Neville Shute’s On the Beach and A Town Like Alice. He was actually English but emigrated to Australia after the Second World War. I’ve not read Breaker Morant but have seen the film a couple of times.
    Dani, I like Robyn Davidson’s Tracks too, but because this list was fiction I couldn’t include. I came very close to include her novel Ancestors but when I thought about it I realised I couldn’t remember what the damn story was about! I once owned two copies of My Place but sadly I never got around to reading either of them. It’s been languishing on my must read list for more than a decade now!
    ainelivia, I read The Songlines in 2003 and really enjoyed it. For some reason I never posted a review on here, although I see that I did submit one to Amazon. I think I will have to rectify that situation shortly!! Thanks for reminding me about the book – although I wouldn’t have included it on this list because it’s non-fiction.
    Julia, shamefully I’ve not ever read My Brilliant Career, although I’ve seen the film a couple of times. Ditto for Monkey Grip. Oh, and thanks for letting me know about the film version of Eucalyptus not going ahead. Ashame really, as I was looking forward to it! Will have to check out Elliot Perlman…

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  8. Top 10s: my favourite novels about Australia

    Reading matters: Taking inspiration from the Guardian Unlimited’s Top 10s, I thought I’d begin a Top 10s category of my own. Because I’m an ex-pat Australian, I’m kicking off with novels about my homeland. While I can’t say I’m very well read as far as…

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  9. Have read a bunch of these, and they are indeed excellent. Like someone else commented, I also found Oscar+Lucinda a bit slow…
    Another that springs to mind is novel called “Lantana Lane” by Eleanor Dark. Highly recommended.

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  10. Hubs, hmmm, if I remember correctly that book was very controversial at the time it was published because it was supposed to be a true story and yet the author refused to identify the aboriginal tribe she supposedly went walkabout with. I remember it attracted a lot of flak in Oz because it presented an American version of Australia that pandered to stereotypes. I’ve not read it myself, so I don’t know whether this is fair comment or not. What I can say is that I could never add it to this list, not because I think the book is bad, but simply because the author is not Australian.
    Henrik, how could I forget Eleanor Dark? The Timeless Land is a bit of a masterpiece.

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  11. Kimbofo,
    Do you really think Nicholas is a “she”?
    Anyway, I added it to the discussion since you called the discussion “my favourite novels about Australia” – even if the author is from Mars, the novel is still ABOUT Australia, right?
    Anyway, I remember liking it a lot, but I’m not surprised that the issue (of foreign writers commenting on Australia’s internal affairs) easily becomes controversial. Can’t really remember if its theme was that controversial, I just remember liking the story in general, and its characters. I ought to re-read it.
    Now what about a thread/discussion on your favorite Aussie singers? Paul Kelly is my personal favorite.

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  12. Loved the list. I just finished Kate Grenville’s “The Secret River” – an extraordinary book that was nominated for the 2006 Booker. Set in the transportation era / days of the colony. Extremely moving. As to singers .. where to start. I just returned from the Byron Bay Blues and Roots Festival. Paul Kelly is great. Missy Hiigins is superb. Love John Butler Trio. Great list!

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  13. I read a book a few years ago about Australia. It was fiction and it was about a man and his family, aborgines and A tree called the Dream Tree or Dreaming tree, I cant quite remember. Does anyone know about this book or where I can get it, I dont know who the author is. Thank you

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  14. ok, i read a book a few years ago and i was hoping you could help me with the title? all i really remember about the book is that it’s set in Australia, the main character gets crucified at one point but doesn’t die from it, there’s a lot of back and forth from Australia to i believe England, and it has an amazing quote that i think is “they spent the rest of that day in a curious mixture of love making and economic discussion…” but i might have that introverted. your blip about the great world reminded me of it, but i don’t think its the same story i’m thinking of, but i could be wrong. anyway, if you have any idea what story i’m talking about i would really appreciate it if you would email me the title. thanks so much!

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  15. I always seem to come in late to these discussions.
    Taryn’s book sounds like “A Town Like Alice” by Nevil Shute.
    And I seem to recall a dreaming tree in “Coonardoo” by Katharine Susannah Prichard.

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  16. a number of years ago, I read an Historical Fiction set of novels on Australia, from its beginnings to roughly the 1970’s or so. I let that set go and now I would like to have it again… A great read for someone like me who enjoys historical fiction. I cannot remember who the author was either. Any help would be appreciated .

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  17. I made a point of discovering Australian authors (Richard Flanagan!) when I moved to Sydney a few years ago, but I’ve only read two of these, so thank you! A few to add to my “to read” list.
    I’ve never yet seen Picnic at Hanging Rock, but I read the book recently and found it utterly haunting. It was quite a shock to discover that it was entirely fictional.

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  18. Yes, you’re right,Perry. It was definitely the wonderful “A Town Like Alice”. All of Shute’s novels which were set in Australia give quite an evocative glimpse of a way of Australian life so very different from nowadays. “Round the Bend” is particularly good, too.

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  19. I’ve been coming to your site for a while now trying to learn what I can about Aussie literature. I am so glad I did. I recently checked out “My Brother Jack” from my local library. I’m only half way through it but what a great book. Why isn’t this better known outside of Australia? It’s a classic to be sure. Thanks so much for posting this list.

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  20. So glad you’re enjoying My Brother Jack. I honestly don’t know why it’s not better known outside of Oz, perhaps it’s just viewed as being too provincial? I’m amazed you found a copy in the library: what country do you live in?

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  21. I live in the U.S., Michigan to be more specific. Frankly, I’m surprised that my local library had it too. It’s an old copy. They must have bought it when it came out back in the 60s.
    I’m now about three quarters of the way through the book and don’t want it to end. I don’t think there’s been a dull page in the book so far. Thanks again.

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  22. That’s pretty impressive that your library had a copy of it. I think you’d be hard pressed to find one in a British library.
    If you’re looking for another Australian novel to try, I can recommend The Shiralee. I’ve just reviewed it — it should go into my Top 10 list now.

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  23. Thanks for the tip about “The Shiralee”. I have’t heard of that one. I’ll have to check on its availability.
    In an effort to repay the favor of turning me on to “My Brother Jack”, I want to mention a few books. I’ll be interested to know if you’ve read them. They’re the first five from my all time top 10 list.
    “Forgetting Elena”–Edmund White
    “Mysteries”–Knut Hamsun
    “The Transit Of Venus”–Shirley Hazzard
    “The Death Of The Heart”–Elizabeth Bowen
    “Dusty Answer”–Rosamond Lehmann

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  24. Really enjoying your list. I am looking for the name and author of a book I read while in Australia.
    It ttells the story of it’s protaganist through several different perspectives…his own, his girlfriends maybe and a few other characters…
    There is a plot line relating to the protagonist being accused of abducting a child….also another plot line to do with counting cards at blackjack in the casino.
    Anyway I really enjoyed the book but have long since forgotten most of it as well as the title and author…
    Ugh . Help

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  25. Sounds like Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman, which is reviewed on this blog. Check the author listings in my menu on the right, or the ‘setting: Australia’.

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  26. When i was in Primary school – 20 years ago – we read a book about a village picnic, a group of school kids weren’t going because they were being accused of lying about finding some cave paintings. I remember a man being killed by a hail stone but not much else . . .
    Any suggestions on the title as i would love to read this to my own kids.

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  27. I recently read a bookl written in the 1980’s by a Barbara someone about cattle ranchers in Australia in the 1930’s. I loved it and would like to find it – can anyone help?

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  28. Kim, thanks for the list, could you suggest me other Australian novels about gender construction and the likes? I’m doing a research on it, thanks.

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  29. Have just read ‘the secret river’ & ‘the lieutenant’ by Kate Grenville. definitely recommend these 2 novels set in early settler Australia.
    There is a book published around 1988 which had a setting on the Hawkesbury river outside Sydney in the early days like 1790. It was about immigrants setting up farms & conflicts between indigenous & white. Never finished it. Does that sound familiar to anyone?

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  30. The Thorn Birds – Collen McCoullagh (Don’t remember her name)
    Picnic at Hanging Rock – saw the film, don’t know the author.

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  31. I read a book a few years ago about a female bush pilot in Australia and can’t remember the title. it was a fantastic book. she also wrote about Africa and I believe Alaska. Any ideas on what it could be?

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  32. Thanks, Tony, it’s quite an old list now (I wrote it 6 years ago), but I’m not sure I could really update it. I’ve read quite a few Aussie novels since, but nothing eclipses the titles on this list. At a push, I might include The Slap and Seven Types of Ambiguity but nothing else really springs to mind…

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  33. I am interested in reading books about the settling of Australia by the Brittish, mostly prisoners. Does anyone have suggestions? I am not sure how to even look the subject, do these have a specific genre name? Like America has “westerns’.

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  34. I guess it’s called “convict fiction”. Kate Grenville’s “The Lieutenant” and Richard Flanagan’s “Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish” immediately spring to mind they are contemporary historical novels about that era.
    Or try Marcus Clarke’s “For the Term of His Natural Life” published in 1874.

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  35. Lesley Glaister – As Far As You Can Go. Didn’t appeal at first as it was describes as ‘erotic psycholocigal thriller’ but gradually hooked me in. Very uncomfortable in places but darkly compelling.

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  36. I’m trying to locate the title and author of a book I read several years ago about a man in the military, serving I think in the Korean War. Each alternative chapter talks about his youth, while the other chapters are set in the present and recent past.
    The story has stayed with me, but the other details are lost. I thought the book was wonderful. I would guess the book was current in the early 70’s. Any help will be appreciated.

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