My Own List of the Best Australian Novels

map_of_australia

In a recent post, Whispering Gums has listed the results of the Australian Book Review’s poll of the favorite Australian novels.  You correctly might ask what right do I have to put together a list of favorite Australian novels?  I’ve never been to Australia, probably won’t get there, can’t even remember meeting in person anyone from Australia.

Somehow Australian fiction has become attractive to me.  The first great Australian novel I read was “The Man Who Loved Children”.  This novel transported me into a world I’d never experienced before.  Since then, quite a few Australian novels have done that for me.

My apologies go to Nicki Gemmell and many other writers whose books I haven’t read yet.  I’ve read and enjoyed several novels by both Peter Carey and Kate Grenville, but their novels are surely much too straightforward for Australian fiction.  If I wanted to read straight ahead stories where point A always leads directly to point B, I would read, god forbid, English novels.  Australian novels are best when they are off the map.

  1. Patrick White –  as a lifetime achievement award, Patrick White gets first place, so that the six novels ‘The Tree of Man’, ‘Riders of the Chariot’, ‘The Solid Mandala’, ‘Voss’, ’The Vivisector’, and ‘The Eye of the Storm’ don’t take up six places on this list.   White was perhaps the best novelist ever.
  2. The Fortunes of Richard Mahony’ by Henry Handel Richardson (Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson) – This is perhaps the one novel that would rank above any individual novel by Patrick White
  3. “Harp in the South” by Ruth Park – Life in the Sydney slums with the resilient Darcy family.
  4. The Man who Loved Children’ by Christina Stead – This is a satire; the title is ironic.  Randall Jarrell single-handedly reclaimed this novel from obscurity in 1965, and it has taken the acclaimed place it deserves.
  5. Fredy Neptune’ by Les Murray – A raucous novel in verse.  I can’t believe that the Australian Book Review left this book off even their longlist.
  6. ‘Cloudstreet’ by Tim Winton – the exhillarating, wild, funny story of the Pickles and the Lambs.
  7. ‘The Voyage’ by Murray Bail – An Australian piano designer-manufacturer goes to Austria and romance ensues.
  8. ‘The Great World’ by David Malouf –  Malouf has written several excellent novels, so I will pick one of the more Australian of his works.  I’m looking forward to reading ‘Ransom’.
  9. ‘Tirra Lirra by the River’ by Jessica Anderson –  a humorous story of a woman escaping her marriage by going to London
  10. ‘Three Dollars’ by Elliot Perlman –  The Australian Book Review did not mention this novel in their longlist, but they did mention ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’.  I must read that book soon, the Perlman novel not the William Empson classic work of literary criticism which I also own.
  11. ‘The Spare Room’ by Helen Garner –   How can someone laugh during cancer therapy?  Read this novel, and you will understand.
  12. ‘Eucalyptus’ by Murray Bail –  A humorous fairy tale.  Too bad they didn’t make it into a movie, isn’t it, Russell Crowe?
  13. How the Light Gets In’ by M. J. Hyland – Hyland has the clear-headed quirkiness I like in Australian writing.   I hope she doesn’t lose it in London.
  14. “Gould’s Book of Fish” by Richard Flanagan – The entire history of Tasmania through the eyes of a prisoner.
  15. Gilgamesh” by Joan London – An incredible journey from the wilderness of western Australia to the wilderness of Armenia told in a blunt and powerful style.
  16. “The Watch Tower” – Elizabeth Harrower – the story of a really terrible husband, a domestic horror story.
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30 responses to this post.

  1. Great choices Tony … but really, you’ve never been here OR met an Australian? We’ll have to rectify that. next time we come to the USA (and I do hope to get there again we will HAVE to put ourselves UNDER your nose!).

    If you like non-straightforward novels, then you will have to put Flanagan on your list (though NOT The unknown terrorist). I’m not sure that I would call all of Carey straightforward – or, any less straightforward perhaps than Three dollars (which I agree is a good book). I think you would like Seven types of ambiguity. It has a more interesting narrative structure.

    I could go on and comment on others of your selections but am not here to write a post! I’ll just say again that it’s a great list showing some lovely diversity of reading Aus Lit!

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  2. Hi Whisperinggums,
    I’m sure my wife would love to visit Australia, but with my computer programming job, it gets difficult to schedule a vacation all the way there. It’s not like I have never traveled. We took a vacation to St. Petersburg, Russia, then Estonia, then Latvia a year and a half ago, and I’ve been to England a couple of times, also Scotland and Iceland. I may have exaggerated some when I said I never met an Australian. I seem to recall one instructor in college from Australia.

    If you do get to the Twin Cities, Minnesota, US or within a few hundred miles, be sure and let me know ahead of time, and I will take you out to a nice dinner here. That’s a promise.

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  3. Fair enough, I understand – it was really the not having met an Australian that surprised me most but I suppose it’s not all that surprising really. I will, however, take you up on your offer if I possibly can. We’ve “done” the east and west and south but, except for Chicago not the north and middle. I want to remedy that one day so you never know. Next year though it is going to be a return to Europe as it’s been too long since we were last there, whereas we were last in the US in 2008.

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  4. Posted by Sarah on February 3, 2010 at 5:49 AM

    I’m glad to see some of my favourites (White, Stead, Malouf, Garner and Perlman) on your list. If you haven’t tried them already, I’d also highly recommend Shirley Hazzard and Peter Temple.

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    • Shirley Hazzard is a great suggestion Sarah…I wonder if Tony has read her?

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    • I have read ‘Transit of Venus’, not sure about ‘The Great Fire’ – I know I gave ‘Transit of Venus” a high rating at the time I read it, it’s been a long time.
      I haven’t read or heard about Peter Temple though.

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  5. Delighted to see that Patrick White is at the top of your list!
    And you are going to love Ransom…
    Lisa (ANZ LitLovers)

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    • There is a small cult of people who worship Patrick White, and I happen to be one of them. There’s a blog that is completely devoted to him. To me, he’s the one recent writer that will hold up with the classic writers such as Tolstoy, etal.

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  6. Tony,

    If Patrick White was not securely on my TBR already (he was; thanks, Lisa), he would be now. I am woefully under-read in Australian Lit. I have read Winton (Dirt Music) which I enjoyed, but not enough to find other stuff by him. This list looks very promising, particularly if I cross-reference with ANZ LitLovers recommendations. I’ll have some can’t miss selections, which are great things to have on your shelves.

    Kerry

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    • Hi Kerry,
      Happy you appreciated the list.
      I can’t say enough about “The Fortunes of Richard Mahony” (Thanks for the correct spelling, Whisperinggums!). It actually is a trilogy, so I counted it as three books which made it more easy for me to read at the time. I’m going to write a blog about it some time in the next few months. Somehow I think Patrick White must have read this novel early in his career.

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      • Tony,

        I meant to say your high praise of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony makes that a must-read for me too. I am making a permanent note of that. This last plug of yours just makes me all the more certain that it is a novel I need to read. I will be looking forward to your post on it.

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    • I rather liked Dirt music, Kerry, but before you discount Winton you really need to read Cloudstreet. Some of his early novellas are really worth giving a go too like In the winter dark, and That eye the sky. The Turning – which has similar setting to Dirt music – but which comprises somewhat connected short stories is also worth a shot.

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      • Don’t worry, I have not discounted Winton, Whispering. But thank you very much for pointing me to the one Winton novel I should read. Cloudstreet goes on the list because I did like Dirt Music and, more importantly, you highly recommend it. Thanks!

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        • Oh, now THAT’s a bit of a responsibility! BTW I wonder whether you would be happy to put an email-subscription widget on your blog – then people like me can get immediate notification when you write a post? I find that easier than Google reader (which I use) and better than RSS which doesn’t work with my email software. if there are reasons you don’t do it, that’s fine. Just thought I’d ask.

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  7. What? You’ve never met an Australian? My goodness, we are going to have to rectify that. Do you ever go to New York?? We must hook up on my next visit!!

    As to your list, it’s wonderful. I’ve read quite a few off it (surprise, surprise) and am greatly looking forward to reading The Fortunes of Richard Mahony at some point. I bought a battered old second hand copy from Abebooks last year.

    I think you will like Richard Flanagan. I know Whispering Gums didn’t like The Unknown Terrorist but I loved it. I did, however, prefer the Sound of One Hand Clapping.

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    • Hi Kimbofo,
      My wife, Deborah, is a world traveller; I’m rather a stick in the mud. Just ask her. I used to get to New York more often when my daughter and her husband lived out east, but they moved back to the Twin Cities. Let me know when you come to New York, and we’ll see what we can do. I would be happy to spring for a fine dinner with the Kimbofo.
      As to writers, I might give Richard Flanagan a try soon.

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    • Oh kimbofo, I didn’t “hate” The unknown terrorist the way some did. I thought it was a rollicking (thought not fun!) tale with a very clear purpose in mind and that, I thought, was to write a more genre-like novel that would appeal to the masses so that he could get his message across about terrorism, fear-mongering and stereotyping. It just didn’t have the subtlety or sophisticated style that his other works do. In other words, I enjoyed the read but wouldn’t put it in “top” lists like many of his other books. How does that sound to you?

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  8. Posted by Stalky on February 3, 2010 at 11:03 PM

    You’ve definitely hit the high notes of Aussie Lit. You are the only other person I know who has read Les Murray’s verse novel (besides the critics). Another Aussie poet worth reading is Alan Wearne. Either The Lovemakers or his last collection are very good. I think your best bet on Flanagan is Gould’s Book of Fish, good send up of the convict life and the Enlightenment ideals used to justify it. Also another contemporary writer worth reading is Robert Drewe (esp. his memoir The Shark Net).

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    • Hi Stalky,
      Those are some very interesting leads which I will follow up on. I’m always on the lookout for good poets, and I’ll look for Alan Wearne’s ‘The Lovemakers’. And thanks for the Richard Flanagan lead. Robert Drewe is another writer I’m not at all familiar with.

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  9. […] Tony shares: “My Own List of Best Australian Novels“ […]

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  13. Posted by Peter C on August 27, 2010 at 10:05 AM

    Absolutely hated Voss. It is so overrated. It only became interesting from the time Jackie met his tribe. Really loved Eucalyptus, a very unusual love story.

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  14. Hi Peter C.
    By the time I read Voss I was already absolutely hooked on Patrick White’s writing, so a non-fanatic could very well mistrust my judgement on his work. I thought Eucalyptus was excellent, want to read more of Bail’s work.

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  15. […] reaffirming highs became a part of my life    I’ve added “Harp of the South” to my list of Best Australian Novels at its appropriate […]

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