What's the Great Australian Novel?
January 18, 2006 4:13 PM   Subscribe

What is the Great Australian Novel?

I'm going to take a three week trip to Australia and would like to read a book or two ahead of time to help me get a better understanding of the experience of the people who live there. What are some canonical books about the Australian experience? I'd prefer fictionalized novels, but narrative autobiography or plays are good, too.

I'm from the US: some examples I'd give for here would be "On the Road", "Autobiography of Malcolm X", "To Kill a Mockingbird", something by Gore Vidal, and maybe "The Great Gatsby". You know, the things you're told to read in high school because they're the Great American Novel. What are some Australian equivalents?

I'm interested in the European history, but also the Aboriginal culture and the new Asian influence as well.
posted by Nelson to Media & Arts (49 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Bryson's In a Sunburned Country is a great intro into the quirkiness of Australian history, cities, and flora. He's an American spending a few months traveling to all the big cities and taking in the sights and along the way.

While it's a jokey travel book and far from great literature, after reading many books and sites on Australia before my visit, Bryson's book actually had more information in it than any other single thing I read.
posted by mathowie at 4:18 PM on January 18, 2006

When I was in your position, I read Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines on the plane to Oz. It's not fiction, but it describes some fascinating and distinctly Australian characters.

Have fun in Australia; it's one of the best vacations I've ever taken.
posted by pombe at 4:27 PM on January 18, 2006

Anything by Patrick White. For an Aboriginal story try Pemulwuy.
posted by tellurian at 4:32 PM on January 18, 2006

Bryson, for sure. It's one Brit/American's view, but it's funny and has a surprising amount of information in it for something that is also really good humor writing. It's not seminal by any means, but I'd also suggest Hell West and Crooked [my review] which is a really inetresting first person account of being a bush cowboy in Australia in the 20s and 30s. It's an Australian frontier tale and a pretty good read.
posted by jessamyn at 4:51 PM on January 18, 2006

FWIW, I haven't read Bryson's book, but I've loved everything else I've read by him, so I give him a hearty recommendation.
posted by Robot Johnny at 4:56 PM on January 18, 2006

Another vote for Bryson. While it's certainly not a travel book, the Bryson book is just a good read, period.
posted by frogan at 4:59 PM on January 18, 2006

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Tom Kenneally

Voss by Patrick White

Dirt Music by Tim Winton

These are or were all texts that high school students read as part of the "Australian Literature" syllabus. And they're all pretty good. I haven't linked to any of Peter Carey's stuff, but it's just as good (Oscar and Lucinda and Bliss are both particularly good).
posted by bunglin jones at 5:09 PM on January 18, 2006

The Songlines is well worth reading (Chatwin is a splendid writer), but with a strong caveat: Chatwin made up a lot (and you won't know exactly what) and is much more concerned with himself and his own crackpot theories of history and Man's Nature (about which he goes on for entire chapters) than he is in the people around him. Specifically, though he's obsessed with the aboriginal Dreamtime he doesn't interact that much with actual Aborigines. What I recommend as a corrective (or a replacement if you only want one) is R.M.W. Dixon's Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker. I know, I know, sounds too specialized, maybe even dull, but trust me on this, it gives a better sense of aboriginal life and Queensland in the '60s and '70s than anything I've read. I've posted about it here and copied a longish chunk here if you're interested.
posted by languagehat at 5:17 PM on January 18, 2006

Best answer: From my Aussie husband:

I think my number one pick might have to be He Died With a Felafel in His Hand.

Other choices:

The Savage Crows by Robert Drewe might be interesting. It's about the aboriginal genocide.

On a lighter (or at least more popular) note, perhaps something by Tim Winton.

For a historical perspective, The Harp in the South by Ruth Park, which is about a poor Irish family living in Surry Hills.

Little Black Princess is another interesting one if you can get a hold of it.

Patrick White is our Nobel Laureate in the area, but his stuff can be pretty dense. My friend Al McKean thought Voss was a great novel (which was made into a horrible opera -- the subject of this thesis).

I would also recommend a couple of kids books like The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsey, and Playing Beatie Bow (also by Ruth Park).

Some of the recent Australian movies are based on books too, but I can't remember which ones. There are also some plays that might be worth reading in a pinch -- anything by David Williamson and maybe Away by Michael Gow or Cosi by Louis Nowra.
posted by web-goddess at 5:20 PM on January 18, 2006

If you want something written recently, then True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey is a great (indeed Booker prize winning) read. All written in Ned Kelly's colloquial voice which really wound up my girlfriend though.

If you're going to Tasmania, then Nicholas Shakespeare's In Tasmania flies along entertainingly - kind of travel writing cum history.
posted by TrashyRambo at 5:26 PM on January 18, 2006

Illywhacker, Peter Carey. Surely.
posted by Decani at 5:28 PM on January 18, 2006

languagehat: thanks for the comment about Searching for Aboriginal Languages; I'll definitely check it out.
posted by pombe at 5:48 PM on January 18, 2006

You could break it down by city. Say, for Sydney - John Birmingham's awesome Leviathan.

Brisbane and Queensland - anything by David Malouf, but especially Johnno. For something light, you could try Nick Earls. And Andrew McGahn is a good read too.

Melbourne - Helen Garner - try Monkey Grip for a window on the 70s inner city smack / sharehouse experience.

Canberra. Australia's most boring city, I reckon. Much enlivened by Don Watson's memoir of his time as an adviser to the PM before this one. And, I know these aint no novels, but I reckon a flick through the Keating Insult Archive and a look at our current PM's blog would be the perfect complement to Watson's recollections.

I'd second Thomas Keneally's The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. It's a really powerful read.

For writing by Indigenous Australians (as opposed to writing by white folk about Indigenous Australians) you could check out Larissa Behrendt’s Home or anything by Samuel Wagan Watson. Or David Uniapon.
posted by t0astie at 5:54 PM on January 18, 2006

> I think my number one pick might have to be
He Died With a Felafel in His Hand.

Seconded (see also the sequal "The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco").

Not highbrow at all.... but hey, it's Australia we're talking about here.

For the highschool approved approach, you could do worse than "For The Term of His Natural Life" (html version here)
posted by pompomtom at 6:01 PM on January 18, 2006

Oh, BTW: Falafel and Tasmanian Babes are by John Birmingham
posted by pompomtom at 6:02 PM on January 18, 2006

I'm also very fond of Peter Carey's work.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:45 PM on January 18, 2006

I'll have seconds of Felafel and Magic Pudding, with anything by Tim Winton or Peter Carey for afters.

If you get to fly in over the great flat f'kall, you'll want to be reading Robyn Davidson's Tracks between occasional glances out the window.

Going to Tasmania? Richard Flanagan's Death of a River Guide.
posted by flabdablet at 6:57 PM on January 18, 2006

Oh come on, no takers for Picnic at Hanging Rock? Someone got something against repressed Australian schoolgirls with pensive looks at the turn of the century?
posted by Gnatcho at 7:13 PM on January 18, 2006

Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey. It's one of my favorite novels.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 7:21 PM on January 18, 2006

Although I've never read it, I've heard the phrase "great Australian novel" thrown around in regard to A.B. Facey's A Fortunate Life.
posted by teem at 7:38 PM on January 18, 2006

David Malouf is a great writer. I also have to say that as an Australian I found the Bryson book annoyingly shallow and full of factual errors. Some good jokes, though.
posted by Wolof at 8:00 PM on January 18, 2006

Ooof, I always found Patrick White boring as hell. I'd second Peter Carey - Bliss is my personal favourite but most of his stuff is pretty good. Gnatcho suggested Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay - that's a nice easy read, a little bit spooky and a good period piece. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin is another good period piece.

Helen Garner is a good contemporary writer who does both fiction and, more recently, non-fiction; both are worth checking out. True Stories is the best of her non-fiction. I think her best fiction is The Children's Bach, which is short (more a novella than a novel), beautifully written and accessible. Monkey Grip is also good but it's not such an accomplished piece.

If you want something contemporary and funny, I second the suggestion of Nick Earls - I suggest Zigzag Street.
posted by andraste at 8:41 PM on January 18, 2006

In my World Lit. class in university, the great Australian novel was touted as being Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White.
posted by meerkatty at 8:59 PM on January 18, 2006

Most books by Frank Hardy will give you a real insight into the Australian psyche: his plots, settings and characters have been endlessly imitated since. His most well-known book is probably Power Without Glory. My favourite is But the Dead Are Many.

I'd steer clear of Patrick White. I've found every one of his books to be crashingly dull reads. Peter Carey is good, but True History of the Kelly Gang didn't interest me at all. You're better off picking up a copy of the Jerilderie Letter if you want to hear Kelly's authentic voice (or something close to it).

For the Term of His Natural Life
is another one you might watch out for, although I've forgotten the author.
posted by Ritchie at 9:27 PM on January 18, 2006

Oh, and if you're interested in plays, the most definite Great Australian Classic would have to be Ray Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.
posted by andraste at 10:14 PM on January 18, 2006

Don't listen to the Patrick White haters here. He is a brilliant read. At least read some excerpts here and make up your own mind.
posted by tellurian at 11:17 PM on January 18, 2006

An older one: On the Beach, by Nevil Shute.
posted by JanetLand at 5:55 AM on January 19, 2006

No one mentioned "The Thorn Birds" by Colleen McCullough? There's also the classic miniseries. And "McCleod's Daughters," a recent television show on the WE network is fun to watch.

My real vote is also for Bryson's book: it talks about the whole country and it's quite readable.
posted by cass at 7:23 AM on January 19, 2006

Nelson posted "What is the Great Australian Novel?"

Poor Fellow My Country by Xavier Herbert, without doubt (although not without argument). But it is supposedly the longest novel published in a European language so .... I personally would rent a bunch of DVDs before coming - anything really: the quirky, humorous and unusal will probably dominate. And read anything you want when you're here, or better still: don't read and form your own opinions as you go. I suggest movies because you'll probably absorb more if you get tuned into the sound of the accent at least.

I find it hard not to be skeptical of any purported bite-sized, homogenized and filtered characterization of a thing so complex as a country and its history/people, and after abandoning Bryson early in his British book because of his insulting attitude, I'd be particularly skeptical of his offerings.

If I was going to USA - in other words, if the situation was reversed (perhaps not equivalent actually, nevertheless..)- I would settle for factual input from something like Lonely Planet or similar to get my geographical bearings and I might go for some historical novel I guess. Centennial perhaps. Or not.

But I would definitely steer clear of any Australian's take on USA because I wouldn't want to have my senses tweaked, my opinions preformed and my own chance at discovering local wonders prejudiced. But that's my attitude to travel - I like to maintain some semblance of potential magic or something. I reckon its better to just have the basics in check and then read background later.

One thing that might give some sense of the present is the press. Go online and read a few days worth of a few newspapers - you're smart, you'll figure out which ones. That might clue you in topically at least, and despite all potential criticism of 'media', its still not a bad sampling method to get some local flavour in real time so to speak, particularly as it's only a 3 week trip. Enjoy.
posted by peacay at 8:10 AM on January 19, 2006

Fatal Shore - Not a novel, but the incredible story of Australia
posted by vega5960 at 9:07 AM on January 19, 2006

Finally, Nevil Shute was mentioned. But not On The Beach -- although it does have lots of scenes set there, I wouldn't consider it the Great Australian Novel -- instead, try The Far Country or Beyond the Black Stump. In The Wet might also be of interest, but more as a now-obsolete alternate history.

As for Bryson, don't get me started. I used to like him until I attended a book-signing/reading -- what a pretentious bore!

posted by Rash at 9:39 AM on January 19, 2006

Another Nevile Shute worth reading is "A Town Like Alice". Although partly set in war-time Malaysia and partly in London, the most interesting part of the story is in Alice Springs.
posted by essexjan at 10:56 AM on January 19, 2006

For a non-fiction tome try John Pilger's "A Secret Country". This takes a a strongly left wing view of Australian society, but I liked it (although it is a few years since I read it).
It sounds like you are after some stories set in a realistic Australia. I'm not sure I can think of anything that meets common acclaimation. Perhaps Tim Winton (I see Dirt Music has been mentioned, but also Cloud street, and his latest is a collection of short stories).
It seems the quintessential novels only emerge with time, the US books you cite all deal with the past.
A fun, quick read is Henry Lawson's The Loaded Dog for a taste of what Aussies used to like, and the historical novels mentioned up thread are all well regarded.
If a memoir is your cup of tea Clive James wrote several volumes of light hearted and whimsical stories about growing up in post-war Australia of which Unreliable Memoirs is the most read. If you read it, though, keep in mind he is one of the Aussies who ditched the place in the 70s as a cultural backwater, so he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder.
posted by bystander at 8:52 PM on January 19, 2006

Picnic at Hanging Rock....very mysterious.

Just come to Australia, I love my country.
posted by Chimp at 4:50 AM on January 20, 2006

Sean & David's Long Drive was entertaining and (somewhat) enlightening.

I read He Died With a Falafel in his Hand and another John Birmingham book while in Oz. Loved them! (never realized he was so popular or that Falafel was made into a movie!)

I'll second/third Chatwin's The Songlines (with the same caveat as mentioned).
posted by shoepal at 11:19 AM on January 20, 2006

I second "On the beach", but it's a sad story.
posted by xammerboy at 11:35 AM on January 20, 2006

When I was traveling around OZ, many moons ago, my Canadian friends and I enjoyed a number of hours reading Henry Lawson, a legendary Australian poet and author, as we drove around the places that he wrote about.

It was a great way to put some history into the places we were seeing in the present.
posted by drinkmaildave at 1:16 PM on January 20, 2006

I'm writing it at the moment. Gimme until the end of the year.
posted by Neale at 3:54 AM on January 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

A.B. Facey's A Fortunate Life.

This book is autobiography, it's simple, but very moving. You won't be sorry you read it.
posted by bigmusic at 8:04 AM on January 21, 2006

web-goddess writes "Little Black Princess is another interesting one if you can get a hold of it."

Not so easy to get, but 'We of the Never Never is available as an ebook from Project Gutenburg. There is also a film of the story, for the short of attention span. You can visit the (reconstruction of) Elsey station at Mataranka National Park.

Jeannie Gunn died in the '60's, but Bett-Bett (The Little Black Princess) lived until the '80's and got to see herself represented on film.

I would also suggest He Died With a Felafel in His Hand and Tassie Babes Fiasco as they are very funny. Dirt Music is good for invoking Western Australia, but you need to have a horticultural dictionary at hand ; )

Tim Flannery's Future Eaters is not 'literature as such, but it is an interesting read on the subject of the Australian environment and its history.

If you read any 3 of the books mentioned in this thread you will be as well schooled in Australian literature as most of the country!
posted by asok at 3:40 PM on January 21, 2006

The Merry-go-round in the Sea

"The novel is insistently about the role of friendship, family environment and myth in shaping individual identity, and it remains one of the most intensely imagined accounts in our national literature."

They're A Weird Mob is a nice, light hearted one. Iconic, but many people would quibble over its greatness.

"Nino Culotta is an English-speaking Italian migrant trying to settle into Australian life. He arrives in Sydney to find that most Australians speak English like I speak Hindustani, which I don't. In general, they use English words, but in a way that makes no sense to anyone else."

Both possibly a little dated now, especially They're A Weird Mob. That's how the writers of The Simpsons like to portray Australians. With 19th century East Side London accents.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 5:45 AM on January 22, 2006

I don't know what the Great Australian Novel might be, but I bet it turns out the author was actually born in New Zealand.
posted by The Monkey at 7:40 PM on January 22, 2006

Kenneth Ross' Breaker Morant was a decent play made into a decent film, about Australian mounted skirmishers charged with war crimes during the Boer War. Another one that pops up regularly in school.

Someone upthread mentioned DVDs... bear in mind the Australian film industry is small but vigorous, and tends to produce films falling into one of three categories:
  1. Serious period pieces (Gallipoli, Picnic at Hanging Rock (bloody longwinded film, I always felt), Rabbit-Proof Fence)
  2. Serious-minded arthouse movies (Lantana, Japanese Story, Proof)
  3. Quirky comedies (Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, Strictly Ballroom, The Castle)
I assume it's a funding thing. There are exceptions.
posted by Ritchie at 12:15 AM on January 23, 2006

I'll second anything by John Birmingham & Nick Earls.

Not a novel, but I'd have to recommend Birmingham's Off One's Tits which is a collection of his articles & essays. It's a great read.
posted by d-no at 12:29 AM on January 23, 2006

Some key modern authors writing in and about Australia:

Tim Winton
Peter Carey
David Malouf
Patrick White
Tom Keneally

I think Poor Fellow My Country by Xavier Herbert is the official great Australian novel. Or Capricornia.
posted by wilful at 9:13 PM on January 23, 2006

I'd say anything by Carey too--maybe his book of short stories--Fat Man in History , and i'd try to watch a little of Kath and Kim on Sundance.
posted by amberglow at 11:10 AM on January 24, 2006

One thing about Australian literature is that very little of it actually captures the current state of society, which is relatively rich, highly urbanised and quite multicultural. Most of the above mentioned authors dwell in former times and distant places, the outback or the 50s, and don't reflect modern Australia at all.

Some novels that would fill that gap would be Elliot Perlman's Three dollars or something by Christos Tsiolkas. The Nick Earls and John Birmingham books are both modern, but they're humour, and mostly Brisbane, so not quite the same.

I googled "great Australian literature" on the .au site, and came up with this and this. Both look useful.
posted by wilful at 3:06 PM on January 24, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you everyone! I have my homework cut out for me.
posted by Nelson at 6:14 PM on January 24, 2006

I dunno, wilful, I'm reading Hardy's The Unlucky Australians at the moment and most of it rings true, even though it was first published in 1968. We're definitely more middle-class, less pastoral and less unionised now, but most of the 'great' novelists seem to have pretty accurately nailed what Australians are like. Even old D.H. Lawrence seemed to have our number when he wrote Kangaroo.

I'll second Kenneally's Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith while I'm here.

Has anyone mentioned Donald Horne's The Lucky Country yet?
posted by Ritchie at 2:11 AM on January 29, 2006

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