Monday musings on Australian literature: My Aussie reads of 1996

Today, I’m having a bit of fun – a little trip down memory lane, in fact. I was inspired in this by Canadian blogger Debbie (ExUrbanis) who recently wrote a post on her past reads. Ever on the lookout for ideas for Monday Musings, I leapt at this one. (I do a few ideas running around my head, but I’m going to let them gel there a little longer and go for a simple post today!)

Debbie posted about 1997, but I thought I’d go for the even two decades ago. The only trouble is that I didn’t start my reading database until 1998, so it took a little bit of sleuthing through other records to discover what I read in 1996. Consequently, my list is probably not complete, but is complete enough I think for today’s purposes. I’ll start, though, with a brief look at what books and authors were “trending” (to use current jargon) in 1996 literary Australia.

1996 in Australian literature

As I only want to provide a little context, I’m just going to look at some of the major awards. Seven books were shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, of which four were by women, but the winner was Christopher Koch’s Highways to a war. In other awards, Sue Woolfe won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction with Leaning towards infinity, Thea Astley The Age Book of the Year with The multiple effects of rain shadow (my review), Richard Flanagan the Adelaide Festival Award with Death of a river guide, and Amanda Lohrey won Victoria’s Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction with Camille’s bread. 

Besides these authors, other Australian writers making their mark in the early to mid 1990s included, to name just a few, Helen Garner, Peter Carey, Roger McDonald, David Malouf, Drusilla Modjeska, and Frank Moorhouse. It’s encouraging to know that all of these particular writers are still writing and publishing twenty years later.

My 1996 Australian reading

I discovered a fascinating, though not completely surprising, thing about the Aussie books I read in 1996. They were ALL by women. Actually, there was one exception, John Marsden, but that related to my reading children’s and young adult books with my children.

This was in stark contract to my non-Australian reading where male writers far outnumbered the women. I read T Coraghessan Boyle, David Guterson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Henry James, Michael Ondaatje and Salman Rushdie. The only non-Australian women I read, besides a couple of children’s authors again, were Kate Atkinson and the Japanese writer Fumiko Enchi. Although overall this is probably fairly typical of my overall practice, it is a little unusual because I have always read Aussie males too – like, back then, Peter Carey, David Malouf, and Tim Winton.

Anyhow, here is my Aussie list for 1996 as best as I can ascertain it …

Helen Garner, Cosmo cosmolinoFiction (Adult)

  • Blanche d’Alpuget, Turtle beach
  • Helen Garner, Cosmo Comolino (shortlisted for Miles Franklin Award in 1993) (read again and reviewed for this blog in 2008)
  • Yasmine Gooneratne, Changing skies
  • Janette Turner Hospital, The ivory swing
  • Sue Woolfe Leaning towards infinity (won the 1996 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards)


  • Jill Ker Conway, True north (Memoir)
  • Katie Holmes, Spaces in her day (History)
  • Pat Lovell, No picnic  (Memoir)

This is not a huge list, and is not, as I’ve already said, all that I read in 1996, but it contains most if not all of the adult Australian literature I read then. It was a time when I was working, and had two young children, so had little time and energy for reading. Even so, most of these books are still vivid in my mind.

janette Turner Hospital, The ivory swing

Janette Turner Hospital, The ivory swing

Janette Turner Hospital’s The ivory swing, published in 1982, was her first novel. I read several of her novels, before and after this, and most of them are still memorable. She’s such a powerful, evocative writer. The ivory swing, like many first novels, has a strong autobiographical element, drawing from her experience as a young wife in southern India. It won a significant Canadian award, the Seal Award for Best First Novel. Queensland-born, Janette Turner Hospital was, for several years, the Carolina Distinguished Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. Coincidentally, another writer I read in 1996, the also triple-named Jill Ker Conway, made her career primarily in the USA, where she was the first female President of Smith College.

But the book that has probably stayed with me most from this list is, surprisingly, a non-fiction work, Katie Holmes’ Spaces in her day. Subtitled Australian women’s diaries of the 1920s and 1930s, it grew out of Holmes’ PhD. I was fascinated by the stories of women’s lives – how they felt about their relationships, the way the single female relation would be expected to give up her own life when family needed help, how they managed washing day – because these were lives of my grandmothers and aunts. In my notes, still in the book, I comment that Holmes emphasises social constructs almost exclusively over other factors, particularly in her discussion on ageing where I suspect natural or biological issues are also at play, but this didn’t then, and still doesn’t, affect the power of this book, because the women’s voices are so strong and because, regardless of other factors, they were indeed constricted by the rules and expectations of their society.

Do you know what you read twenty years ago, and if so I’d love to know your standouts.

16 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: My Aussie reads of 1996

  1. How curious that you and i both started keeping a reading journal at about the same time! I got the idea from one of the Yahoo groups I belonged to, did you?
    Anyway, I don’t have a record of 1996 either, but I certainly read those award winners you listed – which just shows you how influential they were then. I loved Leaning Towards Infinity!

    • Could have been Lisa. I joined my first Yahoo group in January 1997. This 1996 list I got from my weekly letters to my Californian friend. I suspect I missed a few as I missed some weeks , holidays etc, but it’s better than nothing. Yes I really liked Woolfe’s book too.

  2. You’ve got me. I didn’t/still don’t write down what I read (I can probably see where I went to dinner). After staring for a while at my bookshelves I can say I read Ballard’s Cocaine Nights and Gibson’s Idoru, pub. 1996, as soon as I could obtain copies. Tsiolkas’ Loaded and Ettler’s The River Ophelia I probably read 4 or 5 years later. As far as I can see Winton, Carey and Keneally didn’t publish anything in 1995,6 but perhaps I was down at the Nunawading Library reading Tasma’s Uncle Piper of Pipers Hill – I hope so.

    • Perhaps it’s the librarian in Lisa and me that did it, Bill! I like having my list and am glad I started it now.

      I didn’t read Tsiolkas until a bit later, but I bought Tasma around then! Unfortunately your Annals book stops at 1988!! It would have been helpful for this post.

  3. In about 1984 I began writing down the books I read but without the year. (I only know this because my first index book has my old home address in it). I only began dating them in 2000. I have read all the books you listed except for Katie Holme’s book. (Which I have now requested from my library). I googled what books were top sellers in 1996, and there wasn’t any Australian books. The Miles Franklin winner, was Highways to War by Christopher Koch. I know would have been looking for Elizabeth Jolley novels, as she was always one of my favourite authors.

    • Ah, but how nice to have that list, Meg. I did start writing what I was reading in diaries from the 1980s but I didn’t do it all the time. Still, I think I’ll make it a project to go back, find them and add them to my database. The diary entries should be dated!

      I do hope you like Spaces in her day. It has an academic underpinning but the history in the women’s words is so interesting. I agree re Jolley. If I listed other women writers I loved at that time besides those I read that year, she would have been one of the top. She was such a “find” wasn’t she.

  4. Great idea to look back at what you read & when. Of those 1996 prize winners I would still rate Death of a River Guide, Leaning Towards Infinity & The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow as among my favourite books, especially River Guide.
    I’ve started noting on the last page of my diary the books I am reading (including those I don’t finish). Last year I read 43 books in 52 weeks which was probably a record for me. This year the tally won’t be as high because I’ve started writing as well as reading.
    And of course, I have another list of ‘books I am going to read’ which just keeps getting longer …

    • Thanks Francesca for joining in. I must read Death of a river guide one day. I’ve read quite a few Flanagan’s but still haven’t read his first two. Your comment reminded me – no idea why I’d forgotten it when I wrote this post – that although I’d read the Astley a year or so after it was published, I read it again after blogging and wrote a post on it, so I’ve added that link now. Silly me.

      Do you note which ones you don’t finish so you know? Anyhow, I wish you good luck with the writing, and hope we see you here every now and then

      • What an interesting idea for your Monday Musings. There is a strange The Day Before Yesterday vibe about the 1990s decade of Clinton ,Blair, Balkan Wars, Friends, Pokémon, Lance Armstrong…..looking back it seems bloody awful!

        Interesting to see that so many of the leading Australian writers are still very active. I remember reading Janette Turner Hospital’s Oyster and a couple of David Malouf from Ozzie literature from that decade.

        • Ah, Ian, was the 90s any more than the 80s? You know I’ve read Janette Turner Hospitals before and after Oyster but not Oyster. I’d love to read her latest The claimant, but I have a feeling I won’t get to it.

  5. Fascinating time capsule. Like meg, I’m keen to follow up that Katie Holmes book. I’ve only kept a list of books I’ve read since 2010 – can’t remember why I started but I do find it interesting to look back at the end of each year. Perhaps in 2020 I’ll do a ten year review!

  6. Sadly I don’t think I can go back to 1996. I might though, with some digging through old journals be able to find at least some of the books I read that year. How fun you were abel to reconstruct your reading!

  7. I have now read Spaces in Her Day by Katie Holmes. The stories are varied and some are complex. Family and friendship were dominant themes in the stories. Friends of my age and older would connect with some of the situations because of their own family history. You couldn’t help it but admire the women. It was expected that the women did all the domestic work and family caring. They all worked so very hard without much reward or understanding. I did note that women of today have similar fears as to the women in these stories. When I compare things to then and now for women, I know I rather be living now.

    • Oh yes, absolutely Meg. The descriptions, in that book, of washday in an Australian summer have stayed with me forever. That’s an interesting comment regarding fears not being very different. So, circumstances may change, eh, but human nature not so?

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