Monday musings on Australian literature: Novels set in Sydney

Oh, it's fun driving on Pennant Hills Road!

Oh, it’s fun driving on Pennant Hills Road! (With apologies to Sydney-lovers)

My life has been rather topsy-turvy in recent weeks. My aunt died on 30 October, as regular readers here know, which has necessitated two five-day trips to Sydney, not to mention other related work in between.  Consequently, I haven’t had much time for reading or, even, for thinking about Monday Musings, but I have been thinking a little about Sydney … particularly since these trips have been to the part of Sydney in which I spent my teen and university years.

My family moved to Sydney in 1966, and it was from this time that my relationship with my aunt was really established, although I have many memories of her before that. Alison loved having two teen nieces in town to take out and show off her beloved Sydney to. And we loved having an aunt who was fun company and keen to take us out. It was she who taught us about Sydney’s history and culture. She took us to the Sydney Rocks area, long before it was cool, where she showed us old buildings like the Garrison Church. She took us to an early settlement re-enactment on historic Fort Denison (aka Pinchgut, or Mat-te-wan-ye, as it was to local Aboriginal people). And, being a beach lover, she took us frequently to Sydney’s famous beaches.

It suddenly occurred to me that one way I could honour my aunt would be to share some novels about her city, so that’s this week’s plan. I will list them in chronological order of their setting (not of when they were written). They are of course a very small selection of the books I’ve read, and an even smaller selection of those written about the place.

  • Kate Grenville’s The secret river, despite the controversy it engendered, made a significant contribution to our understanding of Sydney’s origins, because Grenville, finding a dearth of detailed evidence, tried to imagine what may have happened at an individual level between the European immigrants/settlers and the indigenous people when those settlers “took up” land in the Sydney region. (Grenville followed her exploration of early Sydney in the other books in the trilogy, The lieutenant and Sarah Thornhill). I appreciate that Grenville’s novel is not “history”, but I liked her attempt to present a possible scenario of how things may have gone, and why.
  • William Lane’s The workingman’s paradise (my review) is probably the least well-known of the books I’m listing here, but I’m including it not only because it’s one that I’ve read and reviewed on my blog, but because it’s set in the late nineteenth century, just prior to Australia’s Federation, during a time of social and political unrest when socialist ideas were being explored. It contains some gorgeous physical descriptions of Sydney in that time, as well as providing insight into contemporary intellectual debates about how to improve conditions for workers.
  • Emma Ashmere’s The floating garden (my review) captures Sydney at one of the most significant times in its life, physically speaking that is. Set in the late 1920s to early 1930s, it tells of the dispossession of working class people of their homes to make way for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Funny, isn’t it, how so often it’s those who have the least resources who end up wearing the biggest costs of “progress”.
  • Kylie Tennant’s Tell morning this is set in Sydney during World War 2. Tennant wrote several novels about Sydney in the 1940s and 1950s, but the first that I read was Tell morning this. I enjoyed it for the vivid picture Tennant paints of Sydney at a time when young women met American servicemen. She doesn’t pull any punches in her story of Rene who is jailed for living with one of these Americans, and of David who is also jailed, but for being a conscientious objector. The irony of this – of jailing those who were practising the freedoms we were apparently fighting for – may not be lost on contemporary audiences!
  • Ruth Park’s The harp in the south tells the story of a poor working class family living in Sydney’s Surry Hills in the immediate post-war era. It’s a good example of the social realist novel – the sort of novel some criticise for being “too” documentary and not imaginative enough, but which, when well done, can starkly show what life is like for the have-nots, that is, for those whose hold on employment is tenuous, and for whom, therefore, survival can be a daily struggle. Harp’s picture of Surry Hills is warm and vivid, and remains popular today. As novelist Delia Falconer wrote in The Griffith Review, it “still bludgeons us about the heart”.
  • Madeleine St John’s The women in black (my review) is set in the 1950s in a Sydney department store. Its characters tend to be middle-class, but they range from conservative suburban Australians through aspirational working women to educated European immigrants. All, though, face pressures – to do with acceptance, aspiration for improvement, and/or escaping stultifying expectations. St John’s book is more a comedy of manners, than Tennant and Park’s social realist approach, but nonetheless presents a thoughtful picture of a city in flux.
  • See that little flat roof to the right? That was my little add-on Sydney bedroom when I was Josie's age.

    See that little flat roof to the right? That  bedroom was added on for me.

    Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi is a young adult novel that is fast becoming a classic. Published in the early 1990s, it is set in what had become by then a well-established multicultural Sydney. Marchetta explores the tensions experienced by the children born of immigrant parents, as they negotiate the expectations of their parents’ culture and those of the culture into which they’ve been born. Marchetta also touches on class, unrealistic expectations, and the public-private school divide.

  • Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of travel (my review) continues the theme of immigration, among other ideas, through the alternating stories of travel-writer Laura and Sri Lankan immigrant Ravi. De Kretser analyses from multiple angles, and for both characters, the idea that “geography is destiny”. She looks at the role of place in modern life: to what extent is it a physical construct, and what role does it play in a virtual world in which we travel by choice or necessity in order to find our lives? Sydney, Australia’s first settler city, seems a perfect place from which to base such exploration – for Kretser who has set her previous books in France, Sri Lanka and Melbourne.

These are just a few of the novels I’ve read that are set in Sydney. Other favourites include Shirley Hazzard’s The transit of Venus, Elizabeth Harrower’s The watch tower (my review), and Patrick White’s The solid mandala, to name a few. You can find more ideas in Wikipedia’s list of novels set in Sydney (though interestingly not all of mine are there).

Reviewing my list, I see that each book explores Sydney at a time of change – social, cultural and/or economic. Perhaps that’s a fact that differentiates cities – they never stand still?

Do you have favourite books about a city that’s been significant to you?

37 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Novels set in Sydney

  1. I’m a Melbourne person now an immigrant in WA. I like your list though mine for Sydney would have Ralph Rashleigh and The Timeless Land ahead of Secret River and also Seven Poor Men of Sydney and Come in Spinner. For Perth the Shark Net is obvious and lots of faves for Melb but lets go with Power Without Glory

  2. Hiya Sue.

    Forgive me if I’m repeating myself on your blog but, as I might have mentioned here before, I’m a first generation Western Australian (Perth, specifically.) All my family come from rural Victoria. For years Melbourne was a city of myth for me (largely self created!), and I have spent some time there in the past. New South Wales felt a little ‘foreign’ to me in those days. Then I started reading Patrick White’s novels, and also David Marr’s opus about him, and Sydney came alive for me in my imagination. To this day my direct experience of Sydney is limited to a few hours stuck at Kingsford Smith while waiting for a plane home (I had been house-sitting in Townsville), as well as being on the wrong side of the plane to see the city and the harbour properly as the plane from Queensland made its descent. But one day I shall rectify all that…

    The Transit of Venus is on my TBR pile. As I am reading ‘old’ novels at the moment (mostly set in London; another place of mythos for me), you may have just given me a nudge back into the various literary treatments of the Emerald City. Let’s not forget Ruth Park’s “Harp In The South”, “Poor Man’s Orange”, and “Playing Beatie Bow” as fine examples of rendering Sydney into narratives throughout its various epochs, as are the prose works of Christina Stead (“The Man Who Loved Children” etc.), Jessica Anderson (“Tirra Lirra By The River”, “Stories From the Warm Zone and Sydney Stories”) and the poetry of Kenneth Slessor.

    • ‘S OK Glen, we’ve all done that. I’m glad you agree on Park’s Harp. I haven’t read Playing Beattie Bow but a friend was saying only the other day that that’s her favourite Park. Another interesting Sydney children’s book is Nadia Wheatley’s semi-picture book My place in which she burrows through the history of one place in Sydney, through the eras.

      Stead’s The man [etc], and Anderson’s Tirra Lirra [etc] are great choices too. I’m planning to reread the latter one day.

      How you feel about NSW is a bit how I did feel about Melbourne and Victoria until recent years when with the move of one offspring there in 2009 and the second one just this year we have started to get to know it better.

  3. That is a great way to remember your aunt, she sounds such an interesting person. I must try and have a go at some of these although there is already a huge Aussie TBR list in my head!

    • She was, Ian. One of the eulogy writers, an old friend from the 1940s on concluded “How the world has changed – but in many ways Alison has never changed. Pursuing her quest for perfection in an imperfect world it could be seen, as in Florence all those years ago, when she spent hours searching for gloves that revealed no sign of a single misplaced thread – the result being no purchase at all in a shop whose floor and counters were littered with rejected gloves. All her friends could tell of similar stories. For throughout her quite long life, Alison remained essentially ‘Alison’ – a loved friend, and there is no way we could possibly forget her.”

      She was, in a word, a character – impractical, sometimes infuriatingly disorganised, but good fun. And, along with my parents, she always gave me books when I was a child.

  4. Quite the list of books, I am sure your aunt would be proud! Not very many books get written about Minneapolis. Lots of books get written about Los Angeles where I lived for a number of years but LA will never be a favorite city unless it is featured in a disaster movie, oh how I love California disaster movies 🙂

    • And I thought you were just a mild-mannered blogging librarian, Stefanie. Poor LA. I won’t comment on why maybe no one writes about Minneapolis, though a certain inhospitable climate comes to mind!

      • Even when I was a kid growing up in California I loved California disaster movies. I just love them even more now that I don’t live there! C’mon, the climate here provides all kinds of opportunity for fiction from near-death by frostbite to family dramas with everyone going insane from being stuck indoors all winter 😉

  5. Lovely review, Madame Gums. So sorry I missed learning earlier about the loss of your aunt. It has been a year like that, losing so many special people. My condolences for that. And thanks for your reminding me how Sydney – my introduction to Australia back in 1958 – lives on in our imaginations. To me, coming from arid Southern California, Sydney was an amazingly fecund place, and so it has been, in the many senses of the word. Literature depends so much on the sense of place, which is why I think there are very few science fiction books, for example, that have a hold on me – they are just too distant for the most part from the smells, tastes and auras of the many different places on this treasured planet that is our home. For a reader who hasn’t been able to travel much for one reason or another, books have been my passport.

    • Thanks Sarah … It has been. I lost a lovely, kind and compassionate friend to cancer last week, too. A little older than I but only in her 60s still.

      That’s a good point about science fiction, which doesn’t draw me either. Your reason is probably largely true for me too.

  6. Sorry to hear about your Aunt, thank you for sharing the list. I couldn’t help but think of the book I just finished yesterday as I read your post, Tracy Farr’s The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, a wonderful and evocative read, of Sydney, Perth, St Ives, and Dunedin. It really exudes a sense of place and memory and I think does so very well.

  7. Terrific post and discussion. My favourite would have to be Christina Stead’s ‘For Love Alone’, particularly the Watson’s Bay area. I can never walk out to South Head without thinking about her. Just a point of clarification – though ‘The Man Who Loved Children’ was originally set in Sydney, Stead’s publishers demanded that it be re-located to the United States. Amazing to think of, isn’t it?

    • Thanks Dorothy. I had forgotten about the setting of The man … I haven’t yet read it to my shame. I love For love alone. It does move to England doesn’t it, but i agree its descriptions of Sydney are extremely vivid, including those scenes of her walking home at night.

  8. Condolences on the loss of your aunt, but what a wonderful way to honour her. I’m a bit stuck for Sydney novels to suggest (though I could name plenty of Melbourne or WA ones). Was Charlotte Wood’s Animal People set in Sydney? Or how about Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl ?

  9. So sorry to hear about your aunt, but what a lovely way to remember her – through books of the city she loved.

    I’ve only lived in Sydney 8 yrs but have lived around it most of my life, coming and going at regular intervals. I also remember primary school excursions into The Rocks, when it was dangerous and not the cultural thing to do! My first view of the newly finished Opera House has stayed with me too.

    I love your Sydney list & happily I’ve read many of them.
    Can I also add Delia Falconer’s Sydney, Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey Mask, the Rowland Sinclair series by Sulari Gentill and Seven Little Australians?
    I was delighted to see Hay’s book and de Kretser’s books mentioned above as they’re all on my TBR pile.

    I’m currently reading the Fortunes of Richard Mahony which would be great for a Melbourne/Ballarat list.

    I started making book lists featuring all the Australian cities and states, but the project stalled when I suddenly lost my draft of Victoria. Maybe this will act as a prompt to resurrect the idea….?

    • Thanks Brona, I’m so glad people have felt this was an OK thing to do. Like you, I only lived in Sydney for 9 years, but being in Canberra and with family and friends there, I visit on and off.

      Thanks for your suggestions. I haven’t read any Sulari Gentill novels.

      Your losing your Melbourne draft made me laugh – not at you, but in commiseration, I hasten to add. It’s a good project, so I hope you are re-inspired to get back to it.

  10. Hi Sue, First of all, I’m sorry to hear of your loss. Your journeys back and forth and the photos give a sense of the feeling of pilgrimage that you are making in returning to the scene of happy memories. The books recommendations look like a wonderful list to accompany my own education about Australia and Sydney. For me, the book that evokes a city most powerfully is Colin MacInnes’ ‘Absolute Beginners’. It details the London jazz scene of the 1950s against a backdrop of increasing multiculturalism and racial tension. Most of all, it captures perfectly the magic of London for a teenager discovering it for the first time. It’ll come as no surprise that I grew up in London (albeit in the 70s and 80s rather than the 50s) and that I first read this book as a teenager myself. The London MacInnes writes of had long since disappeared, but the places, the tell-tale signs of what it had once been like, were all still there, and so his London became the lens through which I saw my own London, and his writing made it seem magical rather than grubby.

    • Thanks Mark – and I’m glad if my list (and perhaps those recommended by some of the commenters) gives you some reading ideas for your new country!

      But thanks too for sharing a book about a city significant to you. I hadn’t heard of Colin MacInnes or that book – but your reference to multicultural London made me think of Zadie Smith’s White teeth, and a few other books I’ve read about that aspect of London.

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