Monday musings on Australian literature: “Returning novels”

Book cover

In his review of Tara June Winch’s The yield (my review), Jonathan Shaw (Me fail? I fly!) writes that “Ellen van Neerven, in a review in the Australian Book Review, describes The Yield as a ‘returning novel’”. I loved this way of framing the novel, so I checked the review.

Van Neerven, who has featured several times on this blog, goes on to say that:

In contemporary Aboriginal fiction, a common theme is ‘returning’ – returning to Country, family, language, and culture, all of them intertwined.

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much Lip

She’s right, I think. Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (my review) is another example, with Kerry returning to her family, like Winch’s August, due to the death of her grandfather. In both novels, the returning protagonist finds herself embroiled in the family’s challenges and starts to reconnect in a meaningful way with the family she’d intentionally escaped. This sort of “returning” also happens in Indigenous Australian non-fiction, like Marie Munkara’s memoir Of ashes and rivers that run to the sea (my review) in which Munkara, who had been fostered by a white family, returns to the Tiwi Islands to understand her Indigenous family and roots.

However, and I hope this is not inappropriately appropriating van Neerven’s idea, “returning novels” are not limited to Indigenous Australian literature. After all, returning stories – think Homer’s Odyssey or the Bible’s prodigal son – are not new. Van Neerven’s point, though, is that “returning” in Indigenous culture has very specific drivers, impacts and outcomes.

Anyhow, now inspired by this idea, I thought I’d take the opportunity to look at some other Australian returning novels. What are returning stories about? The Odyssey was as much about the journey as about the return, while of course the prodigal son story is all about the return.

The novels I’m thinking about tend to be more about the return than the journey, though not exclusively so. They include returns from war, returns home after long times away, and returns after (or for) a major situation or event (like a death). Like Indigenous Australian stories, these can have their different trajectories.


Post-war returning novels are a very specific subset. In these novels, the return is usually attended by the issue of resettling – physically and emotionally – and, in many cases, by the returnee suffering from some level of war trauma. War trauma is often the driver for these novels.

Josephine Rowe’s A loving faithful animal (my review) and Rodney Hall’s A stolen season (my review) are recent war-return stories.

Josephine Rowe, A loving faithful animal

Rowe’s novel explores the devastating impact on a family of the husband/father’s ongoing trauma (PTSD) following his Vietnam War experience. In Hall’s novel, on the other hand, the husband has returned from the war in Iraq so severely physically damaged that he can only live by means of a “Contraption” that is activated and controlled by his brain.

Slightly different examples are Angela Thirkell’s Trooper to the Southern Cross (my review) which chronicles the trip home of an Australian soldier with his English wife, after World War 1, and Geoff Page’s verse novel, The scarring (my review), telling the story of a couple from the 1910s to the 1980s, from their youth and courtship through to old age. Thirkell’s novel is mostly about the journey, but there is much here about the cultural issues that the Australian husband and English bride will face in returning to the husband’s home. Page’s novel may look like a family saga, but it’s what happens after the husband’s return from World War 2 that drives the novel.

After a long time away

Novels about older people returning after a long time away are, of course, different. They tend to be contemplative, and are often (though not always) about the returning person resolving the issues that they were escaping in the first place.

In Jessica Anderson’s Tirra lirra by the river, which I read long before blogging, Nora, who, as a young woman, had escaped the narrow confines of her life in Brisbane, returns at the age of 70, to rediscover and reassess the life she had left.

Glenda Guest, A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline

Glenda Guest’s A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline (my review) is about a woman who left home somewhat suddenly, 45 years before the novel opens, for a reason that’s not clear but is clearly unresolved. Now, 60 and with an early Alzheimer’s diagnosis, she wants to be sure she was right to leave, and if not, she wants to “make amends”.

A different sort of return occurs in Eleanor Limprecht’s The passengers (my review). Here, Australian war-bride Sarah is returning to Australia (with grand-daughter Hannah) from the USA where she’d gone with American soldier husband. This “returning” trip provides the opportunity for her to contemplate her choices and decisions.

Other returns

There are all sorts of “returns” though, besides the big two described above!

John Clanchy, Sisters

In John Clanchy’s Sisters (my review), sister Sarah calls her other two sisters, all of them in their 60s, to spend a month together at the family home, for an undisclosed reason. Not surprisingly, it is about resolving something that happened in the past, a common driver for “returning novels”.

David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon, another that I read long before blogging. It’s about a white man in 1840s Australia who returns to “white” culture, having spent 16 years with the Aboriginal people who took him in after he survived a shipwreck. He, and the people he “returns” to, are challenged by his readjustment. Bill has reviewed it, and touches on the issue about white writers writing about Indigenous people.

“Returning novels” then are highly varied. Most deal with the past in some way, but for Indigenous people the overriding issues are cultural and political (as well as personal), while in non-Indigenous Australian stories, the driving issues tend to be personal. This is, though, a broad generalisation.

Anyhow, these are just a few examples of the “returning novels” I’ve read. There are many more … I’d love to hear about some you’ve read.

23 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: “Returning novels”

  1. I’m brain dead at the moment, but I can contribute one, though it’s a bit off-piste: Life After Truth, Ceridwen Dovey’s new novel is a return to youth: friends return to Harvard for a reunion.

    • I think that’s an ok interpretation Lisa! I was thinking of including Andrea Goldsmiths The reunion, because it has some returns. Perhaps we should have “reunion novels” as another subset!

  2. Kim Scott returns to his great grandmother (Fanny/Benang) and the Cocoranup Massacre in Benang, Kayang & Me and Taboo. He physically and as a writer comes home to Wirlamin country, his ancestral country but not where he was born or brought up, but still a ‘return’ don’t you think.

  3. I did my own bit of returning and incorporated it briefly into a memoir. It could never have been formed into anything at all, as I am incapable of writing fiction; and it was a total failure, makiing me long to escape my home town. (I thought of an anemone emerging and branching out, then withdrawing again ..)
    There are returnings and returnings ..

  4. Hi Sue, I can think of two with appropriate titles by Murray Bail. Homesickness and The Voyage. I have become a fan of Murray Bail’s writings during this lockdown.

  5. Sandra in The Trauma Cleaner goes back to areas in Melbourne to revisit the path, V.L.Harvey in the Erratics returns to her parents though more of necessity than desire. Jack Charles returns to the family he lost as a child as did Archie Roach. It does seem to be prevalent in quite a few books. I once heard a specialist in immigrant behavior state many immigrants by choice will return to their native country after 7 yrs, 12 yrs and if not then they may go back at the 25 yr mark. I find that interesting. 🤠🐧🌷

    • True Pam… I was focusing on fiction here but I agree that a lot of memoirs, in particular, involve returns. I’ve read many. I thought about immigrant novels I’ve read but didn’t find many though I didn’t spend lot of time on it.

  6. Having just read Josephine Rowe’s essay on Beverley Farmer, led me to believe that most of Farmer’s stories would fit this returning theme.

    A type of returning is also apparent in Stone Sky Gold Mountain, although the returning is in the eyes of the Chinese goldrush immigrants dreaming of their return to China.

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