Our favourite Australian stories take place by the sea, in the outback, in cosmopolitan cities or deep suburbia. Their protagonists range from an Australian of African descent to child learning about her Indigenous heritage; and an elderly German professor to a magic pudding.
Such is the variety of Australian literature that it is difficult to place Australian books in a single category.
In a list of OUP staff members’ favourite Aussie books, many that might be considered Australian classics were missing – while there was no Cloudstreet, a different Tim Winton book was mentioned; there was no Picnic at Hanging Rock, but another Lindsay made an appearance; and My Brilliant Career and The Getting of Wisdom were replaced by more contemporary visions of Australian life from Jennifer Down and Maxine Beneba Clarke.
In fact, such is the breadth of Australian literature that no single book or author appeared twice.
Here are some of our top Aussie books – we’d love to hear about yours.
Monkey Grip by Helen Garner – One of my favourite books. A shimmering, stream of consciousness narrative that makes you feel like you’re sitting poolside and riding around the streets of Fitzroy and Carlton – JUST like the characters! Ostensibly a love story about Nora (VERY much based on Garner) and her heroin-addicted sometimes-boyfriend Javo, this book also functions as a depiction of the share house/theatre/artist community culture in Melbourne in the ‘80s. Was originally published without much editing/tweaking to the manuscript which is a pretty impressive feat for a debut novelist!
The Strays by Emily Bitto – Another debut. Set in Melbourne in the 1930s. Centred around two young best friends, Lily and Eva, and told from Lily’s perspective. Eva is the daughter of fictional avant-garde painter Evan Trentham, whose home becomes a refuge for “stray” artists who can’t afford to paint and work and live otherwise. Lily and Eva are inseparable and Lily spends her childhood at the Trentham home, becoming more and more enamoured with the artists’ and their way of life… until something TERRIBLE happens, leaving the characters scattered and causing a decades-long rift between Lily and Eva. Pretty good, quick read!
Our Magic Hour by Jennifer Down – Yet another debut! About a young woman reeling from the suicide of her closest female friend. Really great meditation on friendship, love, relationships and grief. Similar to Monkey Grip in that it’s meandering and without much plot but it’s very evocative and beautifully written.
The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke – Very engaging and hard to read autobiography about Beneba Clarke’s childhood and adolescence growing up in Australia after her parents emigrated from England. Born to British-born, Afro-Caribbean parents Beneba Clarke was one of the few non-white children in her school, and was ruthlessly and relentlessly targeted and bullied by the other kids – and unfortunately a few of the teachers too. A really good insight into the pervasiveness of racism in Australian culture and a really important book to read, especially in our current unfortunate political climate.
I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Alex Miller. Each novel is different to the last and they are stories that stay with you long after you’ve finished the last page. Landscape of Farewell charts the journey of a chance friendship between an unlikely duo: Max, a visiting elderly professor from Germany and Dougald, an Aboriginal elder from outback Queensland. Tenderly written this is a story of coming to terms with one’s past but also of forgiveness and reconciliation.
My favourite Tim Winton is The Turning – a collection of 17 interlinked short stories. I marvel at the frugality of Winton’s writing and his ability to say so much with so little.
The Women in Black by Madeline St John is an absolute treat. Set in Sydney circa 1950’s, we meet Lisa, Miss Baines, Mrs Williams and Magda, all are shop assistants serving in the frock department at Goode’s – Sydney’s premier department store (aka David Jones). There’s a good deal of humour along with sharp observation of everyday detail making this a delightful read as we traverse the ordinary and the extraordinary witnessing both disappointment as well as hopes and possibilities.
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld – I just finished reading this book, written by an ex-pat Australian and set between the UK and Australia. It is about a woman whose terrible decision forced her to take flight from her past life – into a harsh and masculine world. Wyld sets the scene beautifully, and portrays a frightened, troubled, but strong character trying to survive.
All that I Am by Anna Funder – while this book isn’t based in Australia, the author is Australian. Based on real events, it follows a group of characters effected by the Nazi regime in Britain and Germany. The story is built around a nonagenarian in Sydney and a renowned playwright living in New York in 1939. I love Funder’s way with words and the story is haunting.
My Place by Sally Morgan – When I read this in my teens, and I really loved it. The story is a memoir about family, place and the histories that are unspoken. Many parts of the story were familiar, yet others were completely new to me, introducing me to parts of the experience of Indigenous Australians, in a very accessible way.
Alex Chambers (and his dad)
My favourite is The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay. I loved this one when I was growing up! (Bonus: I asked my dad and he said Voss by Patrick White.)
My fave Aussie author is Bryce Courtenay. I haven’t yet read his whole collection, but one of my favourite titles is The Family Frying Pan. It details the journey through Siberia made by his grandma and includes stories from those that trekked with her, AND it includes recipes that relate to each person’s personal journey/ story.
Another author I’ve recently grown to love is Liane Moriarty. I equally love her books The Husband’s Secret and Big Little Lies – I never knew I could be so drawn to a story!
What are your favourite Aussie books or writers?