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ABR’s Top Twenty Aussie novels of the 21st Century

September 27, 2019

Ten years after publishing its first ABR readers fan poll, the Australian Book Review asked its readers again to nominate their best Australian novels, but to keep it to those published this century. In its intro to the resultant list, ABR says that Richard Flanagan’s novel The narrow road to the deep north emerged as the clear winner. It also noted that Tim Winton’s Breath came fourth as it did in the original FAN Poll for the best Australian novel of all time. (That poll was won by Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet). Two other books appeared in the top ten (I think they mean) of the two lists: Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap.

In my report of that first poll, I wondered whether Breath’s high ranking was “largely due to its still being fresh in people’s minds”. Clearly it’s more than that, which is fine with me because it’s a book that has remained vivid for me.

You can see the whole list, plus reviews and interviews for the Top Ten, on ABR’s page.

The top twenty

  1. Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north (2013) (my review)
  2. Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe (2108) (my review)
  3. Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (2006) (my review)
  4. Tim Winton’s Breath (2008) (my review of sorts)
  5. Markus Zusak’s The book thief (2005) (my review)
  6. Peter Carey’s True history of the Kelly Gang (2000) (read before blogging)
  7. Heather Rose’s The museum of modern love (2016) (my review)
  8. Charlotte Woods’ The natural way of things (my review)
  9. Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap (2008) (my review)
  10. Hannah Kent’s  Burial rites (2013) (my review)
  11. Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones (2009) (my review)
  12. Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of travel (2012) (my review)
  13. Jane Harper’s The dry (2016)
  14. Kate Grenville’s The secret river (2005) (read before blogging)
  15. David Malouf’s Ransom (2009) (my review)
  16. Peter Temple’s Truth (2008) (my review)
  17. Steve Toltz’s A fraction of the whole (2008) (my review)
  18. Gillian Mears’ Foal’s bread (2011) (my review)
  19. Kim Scott’s That deadman dance (2010) (my review)
  20. Shirley Hazzard’s The great fire (2003) (read before blogging)

Comments? Not many. After all I’m on the road in Japan and my time is short. I am astonished though, to discover that I’ve read nineteen of the top twenty, and most of those I’d regard as worthy of faring well in such a list. Some of course are very recent, and may not appear in ten years time, given the century is so young. Nine of the twenty are by women, which is a fair representation, and two are by indigenous writers. There’s also some immigrant literature here, that is, fiction dealing with issues relating to our multicultural society. There are coming of age stories, some crime, a dystopian novel, and quite a bit of historical fiction. There are books grappling with our uncomfortable history, and there are quieter more contemplative books. In other words, a broad range.

Although there are notable omissions – Murnane springs to mind, for example, but there are many many others – I’m not going to get into what I think should or shouldn’t be here. Sorry!

Thanks to Colin Steele who organises ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author events that I try to attend.

And now, over to you. I have a train to catch.

33 Comments leave one →
  1. September 27, 2019 13:09

    Well, you’re ahead of me, Sue, I’ve only read 16, but have no intention of reading things like The Dry or Burial Rites. (I did actually try that but abandoned it).
    But this is a good reminder that I really should get round to reading True History of the Kelly Gang, I’ve never subscribed to the Kelly legend but I suppose I should get over that!

    • September 27, 2019 15:05

      It’s probably worth reading True history, Lisa, just because of Kelly’s place in Aussie culture? You don’t have to buy into the legend I think to read fiction about it? I’d like to read Robert Drewe’s Our sunshine.

      I found Burial rites an intriguing read, one I really enjoyed, but find it an interesting listing here. ABR readers are clearly a mixed bunch.

      • Neil@kalleroo permalink
        September 27, 2019 15:30

        As a rule, I enjoy reading Carey. However, with True History, I struggled to half way through, then gave up. Don’t know why, but it just never gripped me.

        • September 27, 2019 18:47

          Interesting Neil. I was anxious about it but somehow I really got into the flow.

      • Neil@kallaroo permalink
        September 27, 2019 15:35

        As a rule, I enjoy Carey, but with True History, I struggled to about half way through, then gave up. Never grabbed me.

      • September 27, 2019 16:24

        I know, I will, I just haven’t got round to it yet. I’ve really been neglecting my project to read all the MF winners…

      • September 30, 2019 07:44

        If you ever wanted an illustration of the difference between popular fiction and literary fiction this list is it. The Dry? Ahead of Kim Scott? I’m glad my ABR subscription has finally run out.

        • September 30, 2019 10:38

          Yes, that’s one of the interesting ones to me. Watch out for my post next next week, well you’ll know it when you see it. I scheduled it before I left home.

  2. September 27, 2019 15:56

    I need to read more Australian literature. This list looks to be a very useful resource. It is also a reminder of how many great books there are out there waiting to be read.

    • September 27, 2019 18:49

      It sure is Brian. BTW, I’m slack reading other blogs at present. Will catch up on my return. Just wanted you to know I haven’t dropped reading you and other bloggers.

  3. September 27, 2019 17:19

    Wonderful list and I still have a lot of reading to do!
    Just read 5/20.
    Have a great vacation…and are the trains in Japan as super an they say?

    • September 27, 2019 18:51

      Thanks Nancy. Generally, yes, the trains, particularly the upper end ones are fantastic.

  4. September 27, 2019 23:02

    I’ve read 10 out of the 20 and endorse all but Jasper Jones for their ranking in the top 20. I just don’t see what people respond to in JJ, which felt hackneyed and derivative to me. Keep on enjoying Japan, Sue. Are you getting to Naoshima or the other ‘art islands’?

    • September 28, 2019 09:36

      Thanks Jonathan. I enjoyed JJ-I think it had some great parts, but I am surprised at the level of its success, I agree.

      I have no idea how I’ve read so many of these. It’s rare for me! I think as a representative list of the books people love it’s not bad, but as a list of Australia’s best novels to date this century, I’d be asking more questions.

      Re the art islands, no, not this trip, though I’d love to. We vent to Naoshimia, Teshima, Megijima and Ogijima in 2011, and had an unforgettable time. Have you been there?

  5. September 28, 2019 04:27

    Super impressed but not really all that suprised that you have read almost all of the top 20. Thanks to you, I have read number one 🙂 I hope you are having a great time in Japan!

  6. September 28, 2019 19:17

    Hi Sue, I am travelling too but in Europe. I have read them all I would have had some different choices but I was pleased to see Peter Carey’s and Shirley Hazard’s novels still ranked highly. Enjoy Japan, I hope the weather is improving.

    • September 29, 2019 00:03

      Me too Meg (re different choices, I mean,)

      As for Japan, we’ve been unbelievably lucky with the weather, actually. Almost no rain during the day to affect our sight-seeing for ten days.

      Where are you in Europe?

  7. September 29, 2019 14:18

    I am in Beaudapest. Travelling through parts of central Europe; Germany, Austria, Czech, Slovakia,. I will then have 10 days in France catching up with a primary school friend. Love travelling in Japan. Keep enjoying.

    • September 29, 2019 18:41

      Will do. You too. Our next European trip will be Germany and south of France we think.

      • September 30, 2019 19:58

        Hi Sue ounds great. I will be in Grenoble next week. Have not been there before. I have been to other parts of France. It is good to travel, but I don’t read while I am away too much to do.

        • October 1, 2019 07:57

          No, I read VERY little when I’m away, too, Meg. In two weeks, I’ve read 40 pages!

  8. September 29, 2019 18:53

    I’ve read 15. I think it’s actually a very good list. Interestingly, when the ABR announced they were seeking nominations for this list, I created my own. I deliberately went for novels I thought might not figure largely in the public consciousness but a few did make it into the real list. (You can see my list here: )

    • September 30, 2019 10:36

      Thanks Kimbofo… I agree the it’s pretty good. We can all argue about individual selections, but as these things go I think it could be used by anyone wanting an intro to Aus Lit.

  9. October 1, 2019 12:05

    I’ve read 13 and have a couple more on the shelf. I reckon this is a pretty good list and had I voted, some of my nominations would have made it – Kent, Wood, Rose, Zuzak, Flannagan. I loved Boy Swallows Universe but realise it’s fresh in our minds – will it endure? Time will tell. Other authors on my list would be Sofie Laguna, Carrie Tiffany, Sonya Hartnett, Favel Parrett, Elliot Perlmann.

    • October 1, 2019 17:33

      Yes, good suggestions Kate. Of your ideas, I still haven’t read Parrett which I must rectify one day.

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