7 Australian novels you should read

Reader's Digest Editors

Although I live in inner Melbourne, there’s something about Australia’s vast outback that has a magnetic pull, and I often (though not always!) find myself drawn to books that explore rural settings.

Here are a few books that I’ve read and loved; their styles, genres, and settings as rich and varied as Australia’s incredible landscape.

Shirley Barrett Rush Oh!

by Shirley Barrett  

One of the most touching and charming books I’ve read—ever. Rush Oh! follows the fortunes of the Davidsons, a whaling family from Eden in New South Wales in 1908. After the recent death of her mother, teenage narrator Mary Davidson has many worries: her five siblings, helping to care for her father’s whaling crew, and the worst whaling season in memory.

Her world is further upended when she falls in love with former Methodist preacher-turned-whaler, the mysterious John Beck. Barrett’s exploration of this world and her characters is bittersweet and hilarious.

Questions of Travel

by Michelle de Kretser

Questions of Travel, an intricate novel spanning the 40 years to 2004, is a portrait of Ravi, a Sri Lankan refugee who flees to Australia in the aftermath of his wife and son’s murder, and Laura, a young Sydney woman who moves to London and back again, traveling compulsively throughout.

The writing is ravishingly beautiful, sharply funny, and touching—though without a hint of melodrama. Never before have I read Sydney brought so vividly to life. It’s a book brimming with ideas: global forces, rapidly evolving technology, the difference between travel and connection to place, and so much more. Wonderful.

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt

by Tracy Farr

Lena Gaunt, in her eighties as the book opens in Cottesloe, Western Australia, looks back on her long and fascinating life. Exiled to a Perth boarding school at four (her emotionally distant parents remain in Malacca), she eventually travels widely as a virtuoso player of the theremin, an experimental instrument played without touch or breath.

Lena Gaunt reveals the parts of her life that gave her joy—her music, her daughter, Grace, and her lover—as well as those touched by the grief of loss. A quiet and melancholy book filled with subtle detail.

Too Easy

by J M Green

Too Easy is an irresistible novel from one of Australia’s new crop of talented crime writers; the first in a series starring fabulously flawed Stella Hardy, social worker in Melbourne’s multicultural west. Both Stella—funny, dark, self-deprecating—and the novel’s settings leap from the page. When one of Stella’s clients is murdered and a neighbour goes missing, Stella begins to investigate.

The plot sets a cracking pace through police investigations, corporate corruption and journeys to Western Australia and finally an inland desert. Utterly Australian in its evocation of urban and rural settings and its sensibility, the book’s political subtext adds another level. Just so much fun.

That Deadman Dance 

by Kim Scott

This wonderful book, winner of the 2011 Miles Franklin Literary Award, explores lyrically and without judgement first contact between the Aboriginal Noongar people and the first European settlers around Albany, Western Australia from 1826. Scott’s question is what if there were a genuine relationship of equals between colonisers and the Noongar?

The novel’s hero, a young Noongar man named Bobby Wabalanginy, is initially welcomed into European culture, including a prosperous white family. But as colonisation expands, the initial goodwill fades, leaving Bobby threading a path between the two fracturing worlds, somehow surviving.

From the Wreck

by Jane Rawson  

A luminous book that gathers the reader up and transports them not only into the past, but into the mind of an alien being. Its beginning suggests a straightforward historical fiction, loosely based on Rawson’s ancestor George Hill, a survivor of the 1859 shipwreck of The Admella in South Australia.

But Rawson explodes those conventions, introducing the lone, shape-shifting survivor of an alien world, grieving for its lost home and fellow inhabitants, and trying to make its way in this strange world. It’s filled with loneliness, wonderment and compassion, and beyond that is beautifully written.


by Alexis Wright

Carpentaria, another Miles Franklin winner, gives incredible insights into another way of seeing the world. Set in the fictional town of Desperance in northwest Queensland, the novel centres on the infighting between local Aboriginal communities and the challenges that arise in the region when a multinational mining corporation sets up on sacred land.

It brims with Dreamtime references and non-European understandings: of ancestors, spirits, ghosts, nature, even the place of people in a damaged world. Wright, a Waanyi woman, keeps the reader unsettled, yet gives so much through her original and poetic vision, and a vivid, even epic, sense of place.

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar is out now from Aardvark Bureau (£14.99 hardback)

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