As it’s Australia Day today, (a day traditionally spent on BBQs, drinking and listening to the Hottest 100) I thought I would share a list of ten books by Australian authors that have at some point in my life changed me, challenged me or shown me myself and my country in a new light.
These are in no particular order. They include fiction and non-fiction, recent books and classics. Some have their tent pegs hammered firmly into the rocky soil of Australian culture and life, others reflect the diverse and diasporic nature of Australia – looking outward, asking questions of other places and other times. Some I haven’t read for many years, but I still remember the impact they made on me, an impression that remains with me, like a crater in a landscape visible only from a great height, but shaping everything.
The list captures a small fragment of the geographical range of a vast and varied continent, and includes both places that are familiar to me, others that I am yet to see – desert, ocean, city, hinterland.
If you haven’t read any Australian authors and want somewhere to start, it is my hope that you might find something on this list that sparks your interest!
If you have a favourite book by an Australian author that isn’t included, please let me know in the comments. I love discovering new stories and new writers. Books make my world bigger and my life richer.
The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas (2008)
At a barbecue in a suburban backyard, a man slaps a child who is not his own. This book traces the consequences of that moment on the lives of eight main characters. It paints a disquieting portrait of middle-class suburban Australia.
A friend gave me this for my birthday some years ago. It took me a long time before I got around to reading it. I’d seen it at the shops and had felt a resistance to it, I’m not sure why.
I remember lying on the couch at my boyfriend’s flat and reading it almost in one go, drinking in the prose in huge gulps like it was something I’d been dying for. I remember thinking: this is what books are meant to be, this is why people read and write.
Christos Tsiolkas is one of my author crushes. I love his writing. I saw him speak at the Adelaide Writer’s festival in 2014 and he struck me as being deeply thoughtful, humble and honest in a way that matters.
This book was also turned into a TV series. I haven’t seen it so I can’t comment on it.
The Volcano, by Venero Armanno (2001)
A beautiful, big, passionate, sweeping story that moves between Australia and Sicily and tracks through generations.
I bought this book after seeing the author speak at the Adelaide Writers Festival and loved it. The story is full of drama and heart, and the setting in Sicily is spectacular.
I recall that Venero Armanno talked about how he wrote ten manuscripts in fourteen years before ever getting anything published. It’s one of those stories that I often remind myself of that speaks of the power of persistence and hard work, and of the fact that a book like this one doesn’t just happen, you have to learn so much along the way.
Breath, by Tim Winton (2008)
Set in a small coastal town in Western Australia, Breath traces the growing recklessness of two boys surfing the big waves with a veteran surfer in the 1970s. It explores the knife-edge balance between transcendence and oblivion.
I loved this book. It touched on something powerful and elemental for me. I love the way Winton writes about the sea and about sex, and about the decisions you make when you’re too young and too driven to understand them, and the long lifetime spent living with their consequences.
True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey (2000)
Carey tells the iconic story of Ned Kelly in the first person, in a striking and distinctive vernacular. If you’re Australian, you’ll know about Ned Kelly – a bushranger who got about wearing a steel mask who was captured after a shoot-out with police and hanged in 1880 at the age of 25. Kelly is the eponymous Australian outlaw. This account brings the man and the world he inhabited to life: his Irishness, his poverty, his violent and embattled life.
The book won a lot of awards, deservedly. It’s not big.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay (1967)
A classic Australian story about a group of schoolgirls who go missing while on a picnic on Valentine’s Day 1900. The story has a mystery and strangeness to it that is shaped by the Australian landscape and the feeling of mismatch between colonial society and Australian nature. The story plays with the fear of lost children that is so resonant in Australia.
I can’t read it without also seeing and hearing the movie version (with an exquisite soundtrack) directed by Peter Weir in 1975: the images of the beautiful Miranda wandering dazed and captivated over the rocks, her long hair hanging free, her feet bare, and one of the other girls crying her name. My memory from when I read this book as a child was that there was some intrigue around this story – whether or not it was true, and what the explanation for events actually was.
Picnic at Hanging Rock also inspired me to start a manuscript I’m hoping I will one day complete, The Space Between, about a girl who goes missing on a weekend away with friends and everything that follow her disappearance.
Tomorrow when the war began, by John Marsden (1993)
This is a tremendously exciting young adult book (the start of a series) set in an Australia that has been invaded by a foreign power. A group of young people who were away camping when their town was taken remain free, and attempt to survive and fight back.
As well as being an absolutely gripping read, this book helped me see that Australia could be a setting for different types of young adult stories.
It’s been turned into a movie which I haven’t seen for fear of being terribly disappointed.
Tracks, by Robyn Davison (1980ish)
A memoir of a woman who set off from Alice Springs in the late 1970s to travel 1700 kilometres through the Australian desert mostly alone other than for a dog and four camels. This is a remarkable book, a story of an incredibly difficult journey through spectacular, harsh country. One of those stories of how travel makes us new. I find myself wanting to use a lot of adjectives and adverbs! A wonderful read.
On a side note, while doing some quick research I discovered that Davison actually wrote the book whilst living with Doris Lessing in London! The book has been made into a movie which I haven’t seen but which I believe the author was reportedly happy with.
They all ran wild, by Eric Rolls (1969)
Eric Rolls is a farmer, historian and poet. I would consider him one of the pioneers of environmental history in Australia. This book is a beautifully-written and meticulously researched account of the impact of pest species on the Australian landscape – the section on rabbits in particular is astounding.
The Glass Canoe, by David Ireland (1976)
I recall that this book left me stunned. It’s a story set in a working-class pub in western Sydney: a world in which death goes unremarked, sex is ugly and life is often brutal. And always, the beer flows – the glass canoe of the title being the glass of beer through which the characters’ world is traversed.
The thing that amazed me about this book was its poetry. Somehow, despite all the confronting ugliness, what I remember now is how achingly beautiful, how tender it also was. I was moved by the intensity of the author’s vision and his unflinching presentation of this world and its characters.
Stasiland, by Anna Funder (2003)
A fascinating, dark and heart-breaking study of the former East Germany, as Funder interviews and tells the stories of a diverse range of people including both members of the Stasi, the secret police, and the subjects of this totalitarian surveillance state. A really remarkable book, impossible to put down and even harder to forget, written by an Australian not long after the reunification of Germany. And yes, I have a little author crush on Anna Funder too.