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Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers from New South Wales

May 14, 2012

I’ve almost finished my Monday musings round-up of writers from the different states and territories of Australia, but have been putting off doing New South Wales because it’s a bit scary to confront. New South Wales is Australia’s most populous state. It is also, in terms of white settlement in Australia, our oldest state. And, more importantly in terms of literature, it’s where Australia’s only Nobel Laureate for Literature, Patrick White, came from. So, given all this, where to start?

With a little bit of background perhaps. It was here that Captain James Cook made his first landfall in Australia in 1770 … and it is where, 18 years later, Captain Arthur Phillip established Britain’s colony in Australia. In fact, originally, New South Wales encompassed the whole east coast of Australia but gradually, during the 19th century, Tasmania, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland were hived off to form separate colonies (and later states). It is a state that encompasses great variety of landscape, from desert outback to Australia’s highest mountain, from a temperate  southern coast to the subtropical northern one. The phrases commonly used by Australians to indicate remoteness, “back o’ Bourke” and “beyond the black stump”*, originate from the state.

For today’s post, I’m going to draw a selection of writers from those currently living. There’s time in the future, after all, for some retrospective region-based posts.

Kate Grenville, Australian author.

Kate Grenville, 2011. (Photo by Kathleen Smith via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

Kate Grenville

While I have referred to Grenville (b. 1950) many times on this blog, I haven’t reviewed her here as I haven’t read a novel by her in the last three years. I have however read and loved many of her novels. She is best known for her historical novel about the early days of the colony, The secret river, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, as well as being shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and the Man Booker Prize. Two of her books, Lilian’s story and Dreamhouse, have been adapted for film. My favourite, though, is her Orange Prize winning novel, The idea of perfection. Most of her novels are historical in subject, but this one is a contemporary story set in a country town struggling to survive the urban drift. Her picture of country town life is drawn with both affection and gentle satire.

Kate Jennings

The other Kate (b. 1948) is a couple of years older than her namesake and, while born in New South Wales, has lived much of her life in New York. I have reviewed two of her books here – her semi-autobiographical novel Snake and her “fragmented” autobiography Trouble. She is a poet, novelist and essayist. She has been nominated for several awards, and won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for her novel Moral hazard. She’s a “pull-no-punches” intellectual who is prepared to confront difficult or unpopular issues and is concerned about what she sees the “moral poverty” of our times.

Thomas Keneally

Thomas Keneally (b. 1935) could, I think, be called our current grand old man of literature – though there are some other contenders, such as Frank Moorhouse (also in this list). He has won the Man Booker Prize with Schindler’s list and the Miles Franklin Award twice with Bring larks and heroes and Three cheers for the paraclete. In 1972, he wrote a confronting novel, The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, about a young Aboriginal man who runs amok after years of discrimination. Keneally has since said that he wouldn’t, as a white man, dare to write a novel now in the voice of an Aboriginal person. He has taught fiction at University of California Irvine and while there wrote one of my favourite travel books, The place where souls are born: A journey to the Southwest. He is active in the Australian Republican movement. He trained to be a Catholic priest, but was not ordained. However, his writing is informed by his commitment to social justice and he is often heard on Australian TV and radio speaking about injustice, here and internationally. He’s truly and literally an Australian Living Treasure.

Gillian Mears

I reviewed Mears’ (b. 1964) most recent novel, Foal’s bread, a couple of months ago. It has since been nominated for this year’s Miles Franklin Award. Her first novel, The mint lawn, won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for unpublished manuscripts. She has also written short stories and essays. Her three novels are all set in the hinterland of the northwest of the state, and explore loneliness, loss and longing.  There is, I think, a lush poetic sensibility to her writing that seems appropriate to the subtropical north.

Frank Moorhouse

And, finally, I come to Frank Moorhouse (b. 1938). I have to admit that I’ve only read one of his books but it was a great one, Grand days, the first of his League of Nations or Edith trilogy. The second in the trilogy, Dark Palace, won the Miles Franklin Award, and the last, Cold light, is, with Mears’ Foal’s bread, one of the five novels shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin. Moorhouse is another of our outspoken writers. He has been arrested for campaigning against censorship but, for me as a librarian, his main claim on my memory comes from his copyright infringement case against the University of New South Wales library. In 1973, the library authorised the making of photocopies of pages from his book, The Americans, baby. The court found that the university had infringed his copyright, setting in motion changes both to the Copyright Act and to the management of photocopiers. As much as I loved Grand Days, it is Moorhouse’s impact on copyright practice in Australia that I’ll never forget.

And that’s it from New South Wales, this time around. Have you read these authors? Do you have a favourite author from New South Wales – either one of the above or one I didn’t include?

* There are some counter claims for this one, as the Wikipedia article I’ve linked to explains.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2012 10:34 pm

    Hi WG, sorry I’ve been off for a bit but this was a lovely post to come back to. I was born in Geelong but grew up in the Sydney suburbs and consider myself a product of NSW. Well, Sydney really. I loved The Americans, Baby and the quietness of The Secret River (having spent years on the Hawkesbury every weekend. I think I must order some Kate Jennings, having only read Women Falling Down in the Street many many years ago, but loving it. I don’t know why I haven’t read any Thomas Keneally.

    Let me show my ignorance – where was Patrick White born?

    • May 14, 2012 10:53 pm

      Thanks Catherine … we’ll have to get you in Wikipedia and listed as Writers from New South Wales! I spent my teen years not far from the Hawkesbury. Beautiful place isn’t it. I loved The secret river for that too. I also liked the not-great film, Oyster farmer, for the same reason.

      I haven’t read enough Keneally … only two (Jimmie Blacksmith and the travel one), in fact, but he’s on my horizon. I think you’d like Jennings.

      White was born in England but came to Sydney when he was a few months old. He lived overseas for part of his life but his Australian home was Sydney. In fact, I was nearly a neighbour of his in Centennial Park when my father changed work location, but in the end my parents decided not to move. I probably wouldn’t have seen him anyhow, though it would have been cool to have lived in the same street as the author of Voss when I studied it for the HSC.

      • May 14, 2012 11:08 pm

        Yes that would have been cool growing up near Patrick White! I wrote an admiring letter to him as a teen and – surprise – did not receive a reply. I worked through all of his books and think it is time I started to reread. A Wikipedia mention – haha – though I might press you for an Amazon review one day!

        • May 15, 2012 12:11 am

          LOL Catherine. OK, let’s start amazon! I did my very first one the other day… But, you know, Wikipedia is good too, though not as a marketing tool.

          Good for you on White. I haven’t anywhere near read all of his stuff. Only 4 or 5. I’ve always been a bit dilettantish … Flitting from here to there.

  2. Hannah permalink
    May 14, 2012 10:53 pm

    Great choices, WG!

    I also LOVE the Idea of Perfection. It’s one of my favourite novels.

    I’m currently reading The Service of Clouds by Delia Falconer. I’m enjoying it so much I’ll have to add her to the list!

    If children’s authors count I would include Emily Rodda, Robin Klein (just checked and she was born in NSW) and Deborah Abela.

    • May 15, 2012 12:06 am

      Thanks Hannah … I did think of Delia Falconer. That’s a lovely book. My copy? Hmm … Do I have a copy? I don’t think I do …

      Yes, there are some great children’s writers from NSW. Another is Nadia Wheatley … I don’t recollect Deborah Abela.

  3. May 15, 2012 2:32 am

    I have not read any of them but I have now added several of the titles to my library list. You haven’t steered me wrong yet! 🙂

    • May 15, 2012 7:57 am

      Great Stefanie … I guess I’ll have to blot my copybook one day, but I am glad to give you some more ideas for your TBR!

  4. May 15, 2012 8:06 am

    Great post, Sue. I always enjoy your Monday muses, and, as a Sydney boy myself, enjoyed this one. Another book by Grenville which I really enjoyed and has a colonial Sydney focus is The Lieutenant. I’ve got to get to ‘more’ Moorhouse and Keneally… Cheers, John

    • May 15, 2012 4:24 pm

      Thanks John. I do have The lieutenant here but haven’t managed to find time to read it. I’ve heard such mixed things I’m a bit anxious about it! I need to read more Moorhouse and Keneally too … both have been around for such a long time they have a rather large body of work to confront!

  5. Jude permalink
    May 15, 2012 9:06 am

    David Ireland’s “The Unknown Industrial Prisoner” is one of my all time favourite Australian novels and nowadays whenever I fly into Sydney past the oil refinery I think of it again. Stephen Romei did a great article on Ireland in the Oz a few weeks ago which is well worth reading.

    • May 15, 2012 4:26 pm

      Ah Jude, thanks for this. I felt guilty not mentioning Ireland – mainly because, guilt, guilt, I haven’t read him yet though I did buy a copy of Prisoner a few years ago. I’ve very glad you’ve brought him up. I’ll try to find the Romei. Ireland is, I think, even older than Keneally and Moorhouse.

  6. May 15, 2012 10:27 am

    I loved Grand Days and The Idea of Perfection was even better on a second read.

    Peter Corris sees himself as a naturalised NSWelshman although he was brought up in Victoria. I know, crime fiction again…but full of gritty realism and set in Sydney.

    • May 15, 2012 4:29 pm

      Thanks Judith … glad you like those two, also. I’d happily read The idea of perfection again. I’d always thought of Corris as a Sydneysider – didn’t realise he was an immigrant from the deep south! I should read one of his books one since I have read two of Temple’s. Thanks for adding him to the mix.

  7. May 15, 2012 6:24 pm

    Hi Sue, I love these state-by-state posts of yours!
    I’m currently reading Larks and Heroes, and am struck by how different Keneally’s early style is form his later style. Much more ‘literary’.
    Is Gail Bell a Sydneysider? People say that her novel Five Bells is very ‘Sydney’, and also Fiona McGregor’s Indelible Ink. (But the fact that they are set in Sydney doesn’t make their authors Sydneysiders…

    • May 16, 2012 10:41 am

      Thanks Lisa, I’m coming to the end but I might do some different state based ones in future.

      Yes I recollect that his early writing was more “experimental” (for the time)? than his more recent work. He was regarded as a bit of a difficult writer but he’s not that now … I wonder if that was a conscious choice or just the way he developed.

      Gail Jones is a Western Australian … but am not sure where she lives now. As you say setting is not always the clue is it?

      • May 16, 2012 7:27 pm

        I think this is making him a more interesting writer for me, it could be fun to trace his development…

        • May 16, 2012 10:45 pm

          Yes, I agree, I think it does … And it would. I have dipped into his biography of Lincoln too. An intriguing thing for him to do.

  8. Meg permalink
    May 16, 2012 9:02 am

    A great selection Sue, and I agree with Hannah that The Idea of Perfection and The Service of Clouds, are great reads and two of my favourite books. Snake is also up there in my favourites – too many probably. I also agree with Lisa, Five Bells is so Sydney and a great read. I would also add Charlotte Wood to your list, Animal People, her new novel is quite good.

    • May 16, 2012 10:33 am

      Thanks Meg … I must read Charlotte Wood. Haven’t got to her yet. And Five Bells is clearly a must too.


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