Five Australian Novels I’ve Read

Given that I nicked this idea from Kim, an Australian who blogs at Reading Matters, it seems Cover imageonly fair to round up five Australian books I’ve read. Below are five novels from that part of the world I’ve particularly enjoyed, all but one with links to a review on this blog.

David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon begins on a sweltering day in the mid-nineteenth century with a strange and ragged figure dancing out of the bush and into the lives of a small group of white settlers. Gemmy Fairley has spent almost sixteen years living with indigenous Australians. At first his eccentricities are greeted with amusement but as the settlers attempt to impose their own kind of order on an environment they see as hostile, many of them find Gemmy’s presence both unsettling and threatening. Where do the loyalties of this man, who is white like them but seems to have more in common with aboriginal people, lie? Every word counts in this slim, dazzlingly vivid novella.

Most British readers would probably name Peter Carey if pushed to come up with an Australian author. I can’t say that I’ve Cover image for Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Careyenjoyed all Carey’s novels but one stands out for me, so good I’ve read it three times: the 1988 Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda. The gawky, misfit, son of a preacher, Oscar Hopkins stumbles upon a method of paying his way through his theology studies, becoming an obsessive but successful gambler, convinced that he’s following God’s will. Equally the misfit, Lucinda Leplastrier, unexpectedly in possession of a large fortune and the proprietor of a glassworks, is well aware of the scandalous nature of her gambling addiction. When these two meet on board a ship bound for Australia, they form an unlikely bond which results in a calamitous misunderstanding as both wager their futures on a fantastical glass church. Set against the backdrop of nineteenth-century colonialism Oscar and Lucinda is a wonderfully witty, vibrant pastiche of a Victorian novel.

Cover image for Floundering by Romy AshRomy Ash’s Floundering begins with Loretta swinging by her parents’ home to pick up her two sons who she’d left on their doorstep a year ago because ‘things just got complicated’. They’re on the road for days: what’s needed along the way is shoplifted; they sleep in the car; the heat is suffocating; insects bite mercilessly but Tom, who narrates the novel, manages to remain cheerful although increasingly uneasy and at times downright scared. He and his older brother bicker while Loretta – never to be called Mum – chivvies them, often hungover, sometimes drinking at the wheel. They finally arrive at a campsite where Loretta slowly unravels, the heat bounces off everything and their next door neighbour can’t stand to have little boys around. Things go from bad to worse. Through Tom’s voice, Ash manages to capture the panicky fear of an eleven-year-old unsure of what his increasingly chaotic and unpredictable mother will do next.

Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a tightly plotted, inventive novel through which run three timelines: Cover image for The Last Painting of Sara de vos by Dominic Smiththe titular Sara’s seventeenth-century narrative, the theft of her painting in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000. In 1957, a beautifully executed copy is substituted for the only extant de Vos painting which has been in the de Groot family for centuries. Marty de Groot’s investigations take a somewhat unorthodox route leading him to Ellie Shipley, a PhD student turned conservator who – decades later – will become the acknowledged expert on de Vos, her career celebrated in an exhibition which will have the de Groot’s painting as its centrepiece. Still in a private collection, its owner is delivering the work himself. Then a collector in Leiden offers the same painting to the gallery’s director. Smith deftly weaves the story of the painting and its creator through Ellie and Marty’s narratives, linking all three satisfyingly together in this entertaining literary page-turner.

Cover imageI’ll end this with a novel that I hope grabbed more attention in Australia that it seemed to here in the UK. Jennifer Down’s debut, Our Magic Hour, follows twenty-four-year-old Audrey for just over a year after her best friend Katy kills herself, exploring the devastation of grief and loss through a group of young people, suddenly made aware of their own vulnerability. When her dearest friend dies, it’s Audrey who looks out for everyone else while her partner tries to take care of her. Down’s novel is a masterclass in elegant understatement. Her writing is so restrained that, like Audrey, we’re brought up short when details let slip alert us to her state of mind. Its quiet intimacy draws us into her circle making the loneliness of her life all the more wrenching but it can also be very funny: This could easily have been an overwhelmingly bleak book but Down steers it neatly clear of that. The result is a very fine novel indeed – compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely.

Any Australian novels you’d like to recommend?

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35 thoughts on “Five Australian Novels I’ve Read”

  1. Kim recommended Floundering and I bought it all the way from Australia. Haven’t read it yet, but I do love my unravelling novels (perhaps because they make me feel comparatively mature and sane?).

    1. You may come away from this one feeling the perfeactly adjusted adult! I usually steer well clear of novels narrated in a child’s voice but Ash does it beautifully with Tom.

    1. One of those books that I’m not sure made much of an impression here. I loved both The Golden Age and Questions of Travel. Haven’t yet got around to All the Birds Singing but it’s on my list.

  2. There are some wonderful Australian children’s writers, although the two I would recommend most highly, Patricia Wrightson and Ruth Park, belong to an earlier generation. The only book on your list that I’ve read is Oscar and Lucinda which caused the worst ruckus in my book group’s fifteen year history. We read it for our September meeting, which is when we discuss the book in the morning, have lunch and then see the film in the afternoon. We all loved the book but the distortion of the ending in the film had us all spitting fire. Rarely do we like the film anywhere near as much as the book, but this one really took the biscuit. If you haven’t seen it, please take my advice and don’t bother.

    1. Well, I’m glad you were all agreed and mot spitting fire at each other! I rarely watch films of books I’ve loved although there are a few honourable exceptions, Elizabeth Stout’s Olive Kitteridge for instance. A pitch perfect adaptation. Thanks for the children’s authors info. Both new to me.

    1. Many thanks, Tony. And I’m delighted to report that they’re easily available here in the UK, although not Border Districts. Which would you pick from The Plains and A Lifetime on Clouds?

  3. I started reading Australian novels young, with Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series of children’s stories, then On the Beach and A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute picked up from among my dad’s library books. More recently, I’ve discovered Peter Carey (True History of the Kelly Gang and Oscar and Lucinda being my favourites), ML Steadman (Light Between Oceans), Jane Harper (The Dry and Force of Nature), Evie Wyld (All the Birds, SInging), Garth Nix (Sabriel/Abhorsen series) and Margo Lanagan (Tender Morsels). What I’ve realised though is that much of the time, particularly if the novel isn’t set in Australia (say, fantasy/sci fi) I don’t notice the author’s nationality unless I read the bio (Garth Nix was one!) I think here in the UK we automatically assume the writer is either British or American, and forget all the other places in which English is the first language.

    1. My dad read Nevil Shute, too. I’m afraid I have to agree with what you say about that assumption, Mary, although I like to read novels firmly rooted in their location. The good thing about Australian books is that they are much more freely available in the UK than Canadian novels. So often I’m all set to buy a book I’ve seen revieweed on a Canadian blog then find it’s only availble through Amazon who I won’t use.

  4. I’ve had Floundering in my TBR stack for ages! Really must get to it, particularly as I think it’s quite short (which is what I need at this hectic time of year).

    Rest assured, Our Magic Hour did well in Australia. I’m just about to start her short story collection, Pulse Points.

  5. I agree with Tony about G. Murnane – Inland is the one I know, and it’s outstanding (and strange). I was less taken with Oscar and L., and haven’t gone back to P. Carey, though I ought to give him another go some time. The others you mention I didn’t know, so it’s always good to have new recommendations.

  6. I totally agree about Oscar and Lucinda, it’s wonderful. The last novel I read by an Australian author was The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood. I found it incredibly powerful, it’s really stayed with me.

  7. I have an obscene amount of Australian literature piling up here since my trip there earlier this year. I need to get busy reading it. I have also acquired a great deal of contemporary poetry. I will chime in about Murnane. I read The Plains and loved it. I look forward to exploring more. I also really enjoyed a collection of short stories called Napoleon’s Roads by David Brooks earlier this year.

  8. I can’t give any specific examples for why I feel this way, but it seems as though Australian writers never seem to shy away from writing about the messy sides of life. They don’t sugarcoat things, they just present them as is, warts and all.

    1. I think you’re right about that, Anne. A book I haven’t included which I also loved is Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany, a love story about two lonely, unprepossessing people told with humour, humanity and plain speaking. I loved it!

  9. Great selection. I’d recommend Burial Rites by Hannah Kent and All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. For non-fiction, Robyn Davidson’s Tracks is a wonderful, inspiring read.

    1. Thanks, Belinda. Burial Rites is an excellent, immersive read – I always forget that Hannah Kent is Australian – and I must get around to All the Birds Singing. Thanks for the Davidson tip. I’ll look into that one.

  10. These all sound fantastic; the closest I’ve come to one of them is David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter which I thought was quite beautiful. I also echo the enthusiasm above for Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, which I loved. And as for Ruth Park, I devoured a book of hers when I was a teenager but which I think was intended for adults, Swords and Crowns and Rings. More recently, I have become enamoured with Elizabeth Jolley, wickedly smart stuff. And have you ever read M.G. Hyland? I find her challenging in voice and fascinating with structure (which she changes dramatically to reflect her theme/narrators). (FWIW, Hyland was born in the U.K. but I believe she works and writes as an Australian writer now?)

    1. I like the idea of ‘wickedly smart stuff’ – I see Penguin have published The Well as a Modern Classic. I’ve read one Hyland but didn’t get on very well with it, I’m afraid. I think it was Carry Me Down. Perhaps I should try again.

  11. I read Oscar and Lucinda quite a few years ago now, but haven’t read any since. I hear his newest is good. Have you heard the same?
    I second the recommendation for Evie Wyld!

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