Monday musings on Australian literature: 5 to get you started

Among the responses to my first Monday Musings post was one from Ingrid of The Blue Bookcase suggesting I post my 5 favourite Australian novels. I had planned something else for this second post but that can wait, as this seems like a great idea. However, rather than post my 5 favourite novels, I’ve decided to nominate 5 novels that might be a good introduction for newbies to Australian literature. Like all lists, it’s very subjective, and as soon as I hit publish I’ll think “why didn’t I choose X?”, but it’s a start and there is some method in its madness. Anyhow, you never know, it may get a bit of discussion going on other worthy “starter” books.

Miles Franklin

Miles Franklin (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

5 Australian novels to get you started

  • My brilliant career (1901), by Miles Franklin. It’s hard to go past this one, not only because Miles Franklin endowed what is our most significant literary award, but because it’s a semi-autobiographical novel about a young woman who is determined to be a writer (rather than marry well). What reader can resist a story about a would-be writer? On top of this, Franklin grew up in the countryside around where I live!
  • The harp in the south (1948), by Ruth Park. Set half a century after My brilliant career in an urban rather than rural setting, and dealing with working class rather than farming people, Parks’ novel is the perfect companion piece. It’s a down-to-earth, realist but warm-hearted, novel about the struggle to live in the slums of post-war Sydney. For a recent review, check out Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers.
  • Fly away Peter (1982), by David Malouf. As well as being a novelist, Malouf is a poet, and it shows in his novels, particularly in this beautiful novella set before and during World War I. Don’t let the “poetry” claim put you off, because this is a very accessible story exploring relationship to land and nature, the class divide, and war. It covers a lot in its 130 or so pages.
  • Cloudstreet (1991), by Tim Winton. This is the only novel of the 5 I’ve listed to be set in the west. It is also the one that in recent times has been most commonly voted as our favourite Australian novel. Like The harp in the south, its characters are “battlers”: the Lambs who believe in hard work, and the Pickles who prefer to chance their luck. Winton puts these two families together in one house and explores their lives over two significant decades, from 1943 to 1963.
  • The secret river (2005), by Kate Grenville. I had to include this one, after mentioning it in last week’s 5 random facts. It is Grenville’s envisioning of what might have happened in the Sydney region when the white settlers – the farmers in this case – came face to face with the indigenous inhabitants in the early years of settlement. Despite official journals and various newspaper reports, there is little documented history of the day-to-day experience of those times. The book won a few awards, but also met its share of controversy, particularly from historians. Some argued that, in her statements on her aims in writing the book, she (unacceptably) blurred the line that separates history from fiction. Others argued that her creation was too 21st century, was not “true” to the times. Partly (wholly?) to answer these critics, Grenville wrote Searching for The secret river in which she detailed the origins of the book and the research she undertook, and then the process by which she changed from writing a non-fiction book to a novel.

What, do I hear you say? No Elizabeth Jolley or Thea Astley or Helen Garner? No Christina Stead or Peter Carey? Not to mention the grand man himself, Patrick White? And no indigenous writers, either? No, not this time. Not because they aren’t wonderful but because this list has a very specific purpose of easing newbies in and at the same time offering a bit of breadth. It’s still pretty narrow though: three of the five were written post 1980 though they cover a wider period, and three are set in New South Wales. But it’s a start. We have plenty of time to explore more.

Meanwhile, if you have books you think work well as an introduction to Australian literature, please share them with us.

Postscript: Before closing this post, I’d like to say a big thanks to all of you who responded to my post last week (and to those of you who read it and didn’t respond. You’re most welcome too!) It was encouraging to receive such interest. I look forward to continuing our conversation through this and future posts – and welcome any ideas for topics you’d like to explore.

71 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: 5 to get you started

  1. Of your list I have read The Secret River and The Harp in the South. I liked The Secret River but didn’t love it, but I do remember loving The Harp in the South, and the follow up books when I read them in high school.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    • Thanks Marg. I too loved The harp in the south, and the sequel Poor man’s orange, when I read them in high school. For some reason, I never did read Missus, the third one, but I expect to read it in a couple of months, finally. I did read The harp in the south again later, and loved it just as much the second time around.

      The secret river isn’t my favourite Grenville, though I did like it a lot, but it seemed the best, and probably the easiest to find, for my purposes here. Do you like Grenville (her books I mean!) in general?

      • The only other book I have read from her was The Lieutenant, which I liked a bit better than I liked The Secret River, but still wasn’t blown away by.

        Have you read others from her?

  2. I never do well on lists like these. I’ve read one and a half. All of My Brilliant Career, which I did enjoy. And half of Cloudstreet. Am I the only person in Australia, and maybe the wider world to find it dense, inpenetrable and unreadable? I do feel I should give it a crack again at some stage.

      • Sue, I didn’t mean that I didn’t like your suggestions, it’s just that I haven’t read many of them. I’m quite keen to read The Harp in the South sometime soon(ish) actually. I’d maybe change Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang for Cloudstreet.

  3. Another suggestion — the short stories of Henry Lawson. Penguin has put out a Selected Lawson comprising all of the best-known ones and a number of the less-known ones, and if the goal is to ease people into Australian writing with something effortless, moving, unthreatening, but still good then I think Lawson would be a winner.

    • That’s great Norm. It was probably least expected choice in this selection so it’s great to have someone from the other side of the world agree on this one. (BTW Quite coincidentally, I popped by your blog earlier today and noticed your Order of Jane post. Loved it. Not the order I read them in but your suggestions make sense though I’d probably tweak it a bit!)

  4. Louise, you can me in as one reader who found Cloudstreet dull. I did finish it, but found it worthy but pretty dreary. Put me off Winton forever. I have well read friends who agree.

    However, I do second the novels of Ruth Park. Read all hers in my youth.

    • Yay Anne. I’ve never met anyone else who didn’t love Cloudstreet. It didn’t put me off Winton though, I’ve read a number of his books, and enjoyed them greatly. Dirt Music. Breathing. That one set in Ireland- The Riders. But for some reason I really didn’t get the whole Cloudstreet thing.

  5. I’ve been building an Australia-themed reading list recently, so this is a very timely post for me! Thanks for all the great suggestions. Of the five, I’ve only read My Brilliant Career (though I’ve started The Secret River three or four times, never making it very far). I’ll definitely be on the look out for a copy of The Harp in the South!

    • Glad to be of help Claire. Do look out for The harp in the south – I’ll watch out for your review. No pressure though, as I know what it’s like. What is it you find hard about The secret river?

  6. Can i just say thank you for doing this. You and Lisa are great ambassadors of Australian lit. Now, I have to confess that I haven’t read much Aussie lit and I plan on also putting together a list to read. But I’m glad that you’ve included my fav Aussie write, Malouf, on the list. I really like his stuff. And thanks to DKS for the Lawson short stories suggestion as I’m quite fond of the genre. Looking forward to more.

  7. I’ve been pretty busy for a month or so but I really want to answer this one –

    I’m not from Australia – I’ve traveled all over the world but never been there! Yet I love Australian literature. Going to Australia is a goal for early in my retirement (maybe a year or two).

    Favorite novels?

    Voss by Patrick White
    Cloudstreet by Tim Winton
    Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
    The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard
    Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flannagan

    I could add so many more – paring down was hard. I really, really enjoyed Parrot and Olivier in America (Carey) and Shirley Hazzard’s novels are a wonder.


    • Thanks for this Bekah (and, really, you’re probably coming here soon? Do keep in touch about that as it would be great to see you, show you around if possible). Love your list. If I were doing my favourites, Voss would very likely be on it. And I love Shirley Hazzard too. And Gould’s book of fish. As for Oscar and Lucinda, it was really a toss up between that and Cloudstreet for this “get you started” post. In other words, I love your selections too!

  8. Louise, I didn’t at all take it that you didn’t like my suggestions but as you are an Australian reader and hadn’t read many of my list, I wondered what you would say. True history is a fair enough exchange for Cloudstreet I reckon, though some find its language a challenge don’t they?

  9. Sue, what a great conversation, and your list is broader than mine would be so you’ve done well I think! I agree with Cloudstreet being a wonderful read and an apt starting point, as well as your inclusion of Malouf – Remembering Babylon is another of his wonderful works.

    I can’t help but think that Bekah and I were separated at birth – hard to go past her selection of Voss, Cloudstreet, Oscar & Lucinda (though I might plump for my favourite Illywhacker instead!), and Gould’s Book of Fish, though I haven’t read the Shirley Hazzard. I also agree with the alternative Carey option: True History of the Kelly Gang. I like a good muse so keep the Monday musings coming! jb@LD

    • Thanks Dilettante. I like Remembering Babylon too – and, I have to say, I really loved The conversations at Curlow Creek.

      Glad you like Bekah’s selections. But, you must read Hazzard – The transit of Venus and The great fire are both excellent. I’d go with The transit of Venus first I think. It’s quite an eye opener and you wonder why she isn’t as well known as she should be. Perhaps not living in Australia has something to do with it!

      Thanks, too, for the encouragement.

  10. Cloudstreet and Fly Away Peter sound like something I’d be interested in. Thanks for the nudge.

    Will you get the KEY to Sydney or something for promoting Australian books?

  11. A great list! I’ve read all bar the first one (I know, I know, but I do have a copy in my TBR).

    I’d recommend George Johnston and Richard Flanagan.

    • Ah good, kimbofo. I was waiting for someone to recommend George Johnston. It was hard keeping in to 5, but a short list is a good list I reckon! At least, it’s easy for people to get their heads around.

  12. What a good list Sue, I’d enthusiastically second all your reccomendations save The Secret River (as I haven’t read it yet), especially The Harp in the South (which for international readers is reminescent of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and Fly Away Peter. Malouf’s short stories are wonderful as well- Dream Stuff was the first book of his I read and it made me a convert, and The title story in his collection The Valley of Lagoons is superb.

    Speaking of short stories, Lawson’s are varied, vivid and entertaining- I’d start with His Country – After All and The Loaded Dog for comedy, Buckolts Gate and That Pretty Girl in the Army for for romance and The Drover’s Wife and The Union Buries it Dead for pathos.

    Restraining myself, other adult fiction authors I’d suggest are Martin Boyd, Shirley Hazzard, Robert Drewe, Carmel Bird and Cate Kennedy. Plus there’s a wealth of crime authors (my favourites are Kerry Greenwood, Garry Disher, Peter Corris, Peter Temple) and young adult/children’s authors as well (Paul Jennings, Morris Gleitzmanm, Robin Klein, Victor Kelleher, Gillian Rubenstein, Libby Gleeson, Melina Marchetta).

    • Books for children? Add Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, John Marsden, S.A. Wakefield’s Bottersnikes and Gumbles,* Blinky Bill, perhaps Seven Little Australians, Possum Magic, something by Patricia Wrightson, Storm Boy, Turramulli the Giant Quinkin, Tiddalik the Frog, and Dick Roughsey’s Rainbow Serpent picture book.

      * I loved those books so much when I was little, I made myself a set of bottersnike dolls out of paper and cut a cereal box in half so that they would have a tip to play in. Some of the most satisfying moments of my life were spent sticky-taping strips of paper in loops so that they would have tin cans.

    • Sarah: Thanks, you Devoted Reader you. Again, wonderful selections. I was thinking I would talk about Australian children’s writers in some future post, so you’ve got the juices going a bit.

      I’ve just started reading some Drewe short stories recently. Excellent.

      DKS: Great ideas DKS, though I am embarrassed to say that I have never heard of Bottersnikes and Gumbles! Do you still have your dolls? Perhaps you could put a picture of them on your blog! It sounds like a great book if it inspired such creativity. There is quite a depth in our children’s literature field isn’t there.

  13. Kinna, good ones. I’ve read those three too … but somehow couldn’t get into An imaginary life. I think I was not in a good reading mind at the time. I intend to give it another go.

  14. Marg: That’s interesting. I haven’t read The lieutenant. Most people I know who have read it liked The secret river better, which rather put me off, though I think I’d still like to read it for the subject matter. Yes, I’ve read a few of hers, including a couple of her early ones, but I think my favourite is probably The idea of perfection. It’s funny and wry, and perhaps just a bit too close to home at times!

  15. I have to confess that the only two Australian authors I’ve read are Carey and Elliot Perlman, whose “3 Dollars” I recently read and loved. I’m looking forward to reading the “Seven Types of Ambiguity” which is much better known here in the U.S. How is Perlman regarded in Australia?

    • Welcome Steve, nice to have you comment. They are both great Aussie writers so I reckon you’ve started well. Perlman is not highly prolific – those are his only two novels and both were well reviewed. I’ve read both and liked them a lot. There is a film of “3 dollars” for which Perlman also did the screenplay. I will definitely read another book of his if he does one. How did you come across him? Anyhow, do look out for Malouf, perhaps, or Winton, as you next Aussie.

      • 7 Types of A was a notable book of the year in the New York Times some time ago. I was looking for it at the used bookstore where I work, and we happened to have 3 Dollars, which seemed less daunting. I don’t remember how or why I picked up Oscar and Lucinda, but LOVED it. Then read The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. which was, well, unusual.

  16. Great idea. I’m going to go away and think about which mine would be – I don’t think I could leave Christina Stead off the list. I might even have to put a Mary Grant Bruce on, not because they are actually very good books exactly, but because my mother insisted we read them as children to keep in touch with our Australianness, while we lived in London (which led to all sorts of misunderstandings later, when out-dated words like ‘squatter’ that we’d picked up from our reading provoked pretty odd responses in conversation).

    • Oh, I love that story. I read all the Mary Grant Bruce’s when I was a child. I have a biography of her – well, I gave it to my Mum originally – but haven’t read it yet.

      Anyhow, I look forward to hearing your suggestions. It’s not easy to do…

    • There were four. First that one, then Gumbles on Guard, Gumbles in Summer, and Gumbles in Trouble. The Gumbles were those white blobs that look like dough (they were the good characters, nice people, kindly tempered) and the bottersnikes were the bad-tempered pineapple-looking spiky creatures. They were always trying to capture the gumbles and stuff them in jam tins. I don’t remember the motivation behind the stuffing, but it might just have been that the gumbles rubbed their misanthropic natures up the wrong way by giggling. They giggled a lot.

      • I only heard of Bottersnikes relatively recently. There was a lovely looking book published late last year called Bottersnikes and other lost things- a celebration of Australian illustrated childrens books by Juliet O’Connor. I demanded it for Christmas last year, and have flicked through it a few times, but not read it. My library has a 30th anniversary edition of all 4 Bottersnike (such a great name) books. Another book I must get to sometime soonish.

  17. Thanks Steve. Now I know why some other American readers I’ve come across have been familiar with Seven types. 3 dollars *is* less daunting – shorter and a more straightforward narrative – but Seven types is a wonderful and really rather accessible read despite how it looks. And, it’s probably a bit more interesting to ponder because of its structure.

    I haven’t read The unusual life of Tristan Smith. Have read quite a few Careys, but he’s written a LOT so there’s a lot I haven’t read too. I am pretty partial to Oscar and Lucinda though, and True history of the Kelly Gang and … but I’ll stop there I think!

  18. Overnight, my first thoughts were: Christina Stead, For Love Alone – an extraordinary account of obsessive love, with wonderful descriptions of Sydney; Nevile Shute, On the Beach (I know he’s not Australian born and also that the book is bleak, but I do think it is astonishing in its unflinching vision); one or other Martin Boyd; I wonder whether the John Marsden series for young adults shouldn’t get a guernsey – it is set in the Australian landscape, seems to strongly appeal to its audience and is a very good introduction to Australia for slightly younger readers; I would put in Chloe Hooper’s book about Palm Island and Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque, were they fiction – the Palm Island one because it reveals vividly and intelligently a side of Australian life few of us pay much attention to and the Garner because it is such a good read. I had a couple of other ideas but they have escaped me. I shall go for a swim now and by about lap 73 they should come back to me with any luck.

    • Ah great choices. I seriously considered Shute – particularly for the “to get you started” theme, either On the beach or A town like Alice, as both have that larger than life quality but I’m not totally convinced that the writing itself has stood the test of time for me. (I read every Shute when I was in my teens, while my friends were reading Georgette Heyer!).

      Martin Boyd is another good one. I thought though that children’s literature and non-fiction could be saved for other posts. Marsden’s Tomorrow when the war began was great (though I must say I ran out of puff after about the fourth, but then I’m not really a series reader.) The tall man and Joe Cinque are two wonderful wonderful reads and I plan to fit them into a future post. Please do come back after your laps with more suggestions!

      • Hello, remembered the others around lap 6 only:

        Aeneas Gunn, Little Black Princess and We of the Never Never, but they are non-fiction really;
        Seven Little Australians, but it is children’s literature – still guaranteed to make me cry though;
        and, my piece de resistance in this context, as it is the genuine article ie a novel, Tourmaline by Randolph Stow, which is the only thing I’ve read by him (somehow managed to miss out on Merry-go-round in the Sea [that is him, isn’t it?]). I remember loving Tourmaline many years ago. I should give it another read – although I hesitate slightly, after my experience of returning to Monkey Grip: I loved when it first came out, but now find it somewhat on the soap opera side of the spectrum.

      • I’ve only read On the Beach, and remember the writing as very dated and sexist. But boy I remember that book really well. I’d love to read more of his books, and must read A Town Like Alice sometime soonish.

    • If this is for newbies, how about Seven Poor Men of Sydney rather than For Love Alone? You have a larger cast of lead characters, in place of one or two (introducing the reader to a broader spread of Australians), and then there’s Kol Blout’s musical five-page description of Australia near the end. “South without lands to the pole, in the rough swirling sullen sudden surly southern ocean, last post of the land world, thence south to the whaleland, to the penguins …” etc. Love introduces the important theme of migration, but it also means you spend half your time in London.

      • Yes, my aim was for newbies – not to dumb down of course as we are all readers here, but books to introduce to Australian lit and to particular authors. I do like that “swirling sullen sudden surly southern ocean”. That does sound like a good one as a starter. I should read it myself.

  19. zmkc: I will definitely be doing Seven little Australians down the track. An absolute must. I was hoping to read The merry-go-round sea this year – it’s in the pile – but am not sure I’ll get to it. I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t read Stowe yet though I have two in my tbr pile.

  20. DKS I am ashamed to say I haven’t read Seven Poor Men of Sydney – only, so far, For Love Alone and The Man Who Loved Children and part of Cotters England (but, amazingly, my husband taught Christina Stead Russian for a while)

    • Great Stefanie. You may be interested to know that Miles Franklin (My brilliant career) spent a bit of time in the USA in the early 1900s – Chicago mostly I believe – and worked on women’s rights and trade union issues. She was a very interesting woman.

  21. What a useful list – there is much there to keep an avid reader interested I am sure. I’ve read the Grenville, but Cloudstreet looks like the next one I would choose.

    Your post has attracted a lengthy conversation so obviously you hit the button with that one!

    P.S. I didn’t even realise that David Malouf was Australian.

    • Thanks Tom. It is great to see such interest from both Aussies and non Aussies – to see people enjoying the conversation. I think you should try Cloudstreet – might get The slap taste out of your mouth!!

      Interesting re Malouf. He is, in some ways, a man of the world but is in fact very much Australian though of Lebanese parents I believe. Have you read him, or just heard of him?

      • Well, I’ve read a lot about him and his books. Strangely, middle Eastern literature does not draw me particularly. I tend to be rather Euro-centric in my reading!

  22. It is a good one, and it’s one that usually gets ploughed under the wake of Man Who Loved Children, and (in Australia) For Love Alone and (in the US, since the NYRB reprinted it) Letty Fox, and (in the UK) Cotters’ England — all excellent books, but Seven Poor Men is really eager with language — really vivid, really chunky with anecdote; and with language that refuses to minimalise, musical language: “When they came in to the quiet room, swimming in light-barred gloom and fresh with the fat summer breeze, Mrs Blout arose quickly with her darning and gave them chairs.”

  23. Tom, just as well he’s Australian then! According ti Wikipedia this is his background, “a Christian Lebanese father and an English-born mother of Portuguese Sephardi Jewish descent”. He actually lived in Italy and England for a while, but was born in Brisbane and is now based in Sydney. I think you’d like him, and Fly away Peter might be a good place to start.

  24. Well, for my two bob’s worth, I like your choice of Cloudstreet – for mine still the most satisfying Winton novel and love Fly Away Peter, one of my favourites from a favourite author. Have you read Malouf’s Child’s Play? Very interesting in this terrorism obsessed world (although not ‘Australian’ in content as it is set in Italy). As for Kate Grenville, well you know my views on that, though I did find Searching for the Secret River interesting (the historian in me) and thought the Lieutenant more interesting than the Secret River. And then, of course, there is Lillian’s Story. Richard Flanagan, for mine, is over-rated, particularly the Sound of One Hand Clapping which aggravated me almost more than any book I have read (Helen Garner wrote an interesting review of the film at the time) and Gould’s Book of Fish. I found both very much over-written and in need of a strong editorial hand. The quieter style of Wanting works much better and hopefully augurs for better things from a writer who clearly has potential. True History of the Kelly Gang is one of my favourite Carey’s (along with The Tax Inspector) while Voss is perhaps my favourite Australian novel. Don’t forget (along with the Astley’s and Jolly’s of the Australian world) Alex Miller. His The Ancestor Game is complex, The Sitter wonderful and Lovesong very moving.

    • Well thanks Ian for weighing in. I’m not sure where to start but I do remember your general attitude to Flanagan. I didn’t know though that you liked Grenville’s The lieutenant better than The secret river. I had decided not to read it as I’d got the feeling that most people liked it less but from what I’m reading here, maybe I should.

      Did I know that Voss was your favourite Australian novel? It is probably mine too – as much as I can say any particular one is favourite.

      I haven’t read Child’s play, but I think I have it here and have often picked it up thinking to read it.

      As for Miller. I did like Lovesong, but really should read more of his.

  25. A great list but I have to confess I’ve read none of them! I’m still a little hesitant to read David Malouf. My friend studied Fly Away Peter in high school and she absolutely hated it while I studied Dream Stuff and didn’t get along too well with it either.

    I also want to add Tomorrow, when the war began. I know it’s YA but I think it really captures the aussie spirit, language and the beauty of the aussie land and bush which is what we’re more often than not associated with.

    • Thanks Mae…I do plan to do an intro to Aussie kids lit and Marsden will certainly feature. I think he is a great writer. Meanwhile, do give Malouf a try. He may not be the best choice for adolescents I suspect but, given the sorts of things I know you read, I think that you would like him now. You could start with his first more autobiographical one, Johnno.

  26. Thanks for coming back to respond Louise. Yes, I agree totally about On the beach – dated but a great story. A town like Alice and No highway are great ones to read too. And, one that as I recollect felt a little different is In the wet. He was a great storyteller. No wonder that quite a few of his books ended up being filmed.

    Is the young man interested in Bottersnikes. Next time you come down this way – or, even, maybe I’ll eventually make it up your way – I’d love to see it.

  27. Pingback: A Remarkable Novel from Australia – “Harp in the South” by Ruth Park « Tony's Book World

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