I’m lucky to call the land down under home and generally tackle books set in Australia when I’m heading there for a visit. There’s something about adding to the anticipation by immersing myself in stories that describe gum trees and bush, red earth and the outback. 🐨
I find I never tend to read books set in Australia when I’m outside of the country; I think I fear they’ll bring about a great sense of melancholy and homesickness. This leaves me little time for reading about my motherland and means my ‘to read’ list is incredibly long. To help make sense of this inspiring (but overwhelming) list the following titles are arranged by date of publication.
During my last few visits I enjoyed reading both Tracks, an inspiring tale and The Slap, a polarizing read. Though I still have many classics to devour, for my next trip I’ll be turning to some of the contemporary works shortlisted for The Stella Prize; a literary award celebrating Australian women’s writing. Notable nominees from the past few years include memoir The Hate Race, mythical The Swan Book and The Strays, a story set in Melbourne’s 1930s art scene.
Books Set In Australia
Seven Little Australians
by Ethel Turner, 1894
19th century Australia: Captain Woolcot, having lost his wife tragically young, remarried a much younger young woman to provide his six children with a new mother. Together, they had another child, making seven. The Captain felt it was necessary to run the family with army discipline, but his rules and regulations were no match for the fun loving children, led by the redoubtable Judy.
My Brilliant Career
by Miles Franklin, 1901
My Brilliant Career is the story of Sybylla, a headstrong young girl growing up in early 20th century Australia. Sybylla rejects the opportunity to marry a wealthy young man in order to maintain her independence. As a consequence she must take a job as a governess to a local family to which her father is indebted. My Brilliant Career is an early romantic novel by this popular Australian author.
We of the Never Never
by Jeannie Gunn, 1907
In 1902, newly-married Jeannie Gunn (Mrs Aeneas Gunn) left the security and comfort of her Melbourne home to travel to the depths of the Northern Territory, where her husband had been appointed manager of ‘The Elsey’, a large cattle station. One of the very few white women in the area, she was at first resented by people on and around the station, till her warmth and spirit won their affection and respect.
The Man Who Loved Children
by Christina Stead, 1940
Every family lives in an evolving story, told by all its members, inside a landscape of portentous events and characters. Their view of themselves is not shared by people looking from outside in – visitors, and particularly not relatives – for they have to see something pretty humdrum, even if, as in this case, the fecklessness they complain of is extreme.
The Harp in the South
by Ruth Park, 1948
The Harp in the South is a nostalgic and moving portrait of the eventful family life of the Darcys of Number Twelve-and-a-Half Plymouth Street in Surry Hills, a Sydney slum. There grow the bitter-sweet first and last loves of Roie Darcy, who becomes a woman too quickly amid the brothels and the razor gangs, the tenements and the sly-grog shops. Ruth Park is a classic storyteller. In this novel she brings to life a community where, despite the odds, life is always exuberant and full of promise.
A Town Like Alice
by Nevil Shute, 1950
Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman living in Malaya, is captured by the invading Japanese and forced on a brutal seven-month death march with dozens of other women and children. A few years after the war, Jean is back in England, the nightmare behind her. However, an unexpected inheritance inspires her to return to Malaya to give something back to the villagers who saved her life. Jean’s travels leads her to a desolate Australian outpost called Willstown, where she finds a challenge that will draw on all the resourcefulness and spirit that carried her through her war-time ordeals.
by D’Arcy Niland, 1955
The Shiralee tells the story of the itinerant rural worker Macauley – sometimes described as a ‘swagman’ or ‘swaggie’ – who suddenly finds himself taking responsibility for his child. Having returned from ‘walkabout’, he finds his wife entwined in the arms of another, and so he takes his four-year-old daughter, Buster, with him. The child is the ‘shiralee’, an Aboriginal word meaning ‘burden’. In their time together, father and daughter explore new depths of understanding and bonding. The barren landscapes of the outback are central to the swagman’s love for his country and provide a backdrop to the richness of his developing relationship with Buster.
On the Beach
by Nevil Shute, 1957
After a nuclear World War III has destroyed most of the globe, the few remaining survivors in southern Australia await the radioactive cloud that is heading their way and bringing certain death to everyone in its path. Among them is an American submarine captain struggling to resist the knowledge that his wife and children in the United States must be dead. Then a faint Morse code signal is picked up, transmitting from somewhere near Seattle, and Captain Towers must lead his submarine crew on a bleak tour of the ruined world in a desperate search for signs of life. On the Beach is a remarkably convincing portrait of how ordinary people might face the most unimaginable nightmare.
My Brother Jack
by George Johnston, 1964
Through the story of two brothers who grew up in patriotic, suburban Melbourne, George Johnston created an enduring exploration of two Australian myths – that of the man who loses his soul as he gains worldly success, and that of the tough, honest, Aussie battler.
Picnic at Hanging Rock
by Joan Lindsay, 1967
It was a cloudless summer day in the year nineteen hundred.
Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three of the girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of Hanging Rock. Further, higher, till at last they disappeared. They never returned.
by Helen Garner, 1977
In Monkey Grip, Helen Garner charts the lives of a generation. Her characters are exploring new ways of loving and living – and nothing is harder than learning to love lightly. Nora and Javo are trapped in a desperate relationship. Nora’s addiction is romantic love; Javo’s is hard drugs. The harder they pull away, the tighter the monkey grip. A lyrical, gritty, rough-edged novel that deserves its place as a classic of Australian fiction.
The Thorn Birds
by Colleen McCullough, 1977
Powered by the dreams and struggles of three generations, The Thorn Birds is the epic saga of a family rooted in the Australian sheep country. At the story’s heart is the love of Meggie Cleary, who can never possess the man she desperately adores, and Ralph de Bricassart, who rises from parish priest to the inner circles of the Vatican…but whose passion for Meggie will follow him all the days of his life.
Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback
by Robyn Davidson, 1980
Robyn Davidson’s opens the memoir of her perilous journey across 1,700 miles of hostile Australian desert to the sea with only four camels and a dog for company with the following words: “I experienced that sinking feeling you get when you know you have conned yourself into doing something difficult and there’s no going back.”
A Fortunate Life
by Albert B. Facey, 1981
This is the extraordinary life of an ordinary man. It is the story of Albert Facey, who lived with simple honesty, compassion and courage. A parentless boy who started work at eight on the rough West Australian frontier, he struggled as an itinerant rural worker, survived the gore of Gallipoli, the loss of his farm in the Depression, the death of his son in World War II and that of his beloved wife after sixty devoted years – yet he felt that his life was fortunate.
by Gerald Murnane, 1982
On their vast estates, the landowning families of the plains have preserved a rich and distinctive culture. Obsessed with their own habitat and history, they hire artisans, writers and historians to record in minute detail every aspect of their lives, and the nature of their land. A young film-maker arrives on the plains, hoping to make his own contribution to the elaboration of this history. In a private library he begins to take notes for a film, and chooses the daughter of his patron for a leading role.
by Robert Drewe, 1984
Set among the surf and sandhills of the Australian beach – and the tidal changes of three generations of the Lang family – this bestselling collection of short stories is an Australian classic. The Bodysurfers vividly evokes the beach, with the scent of the suntan oil, the sting of the sun and a lazy sensuality, all the while hinting at a deep undercurrent of suburban malaise.
From first publication, these poignant and seductive stories marked a major change in Australian literature.
Henry Lawson: Short Stories
by Henry Lawson, 1986
Henry Lawson is too often regarded as a legend rather than a writer to be enjoyed. In this selection John Barnes reveals Lawson not only as a writer who has delighted past generations. His short stories, some humourous, some wry, some moving are, above all, enjoyable.
by Bruce Chatwin, 1987
In this extraordinary book, Bruce Chatwin has adapted a literary form common until the eighteenth century though rare in ours; a story of ideas in which two companions, traveling and talking together, explore the hopes and dreams that animate both them and the people they encounter. Set in almost uninhabitable regions of Central Australia, The Songlines asks and tries to answer these questions: Why is man the most restless, dissatisfied of animals? Why do wandering people conceive the world as perfect whereas sedentary ones always try to change it? Why have the great teachers – Christ or the Buddha – recommended the Road as the way. to salvation? Do we agree with Pascal that all man’s troubles stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room?
Oscar and Lucinda
by Peter Carey, 1988
Oscar is a young English clergyman who has broken with his past and developed a disturbing talent for gambling. A country girl of singular ambition, Lucinda moves to Sydney, driven by dreams of self-reliance and the building of an industrial Utopia. Together this unlikely pair create and are created by the spectacle of mid-nineteenth century Australia.
by Tim Winton, 1991
Struggling to rebuild their lives after being touched by disaster, the Pickle family, who’ve inherited a big house called Cloudstreet in a suburb of Perth, take in the God-fearing Lambs as tenants. The Lambs have suffered their own catastrophes, and determined to survive, they open up a grocery on the ground floor. From 1944 to 1964, the shared experiences of the two overpopulated clans – running the gamut from drunkenness, adultery, and death to resurrection, marriage, and birth – bond them to each other and to the bustling, haunted house in ways no one could have anticipated.
Looking for Alibrandi
by Melina Marchetta, 1992
For as long as Josephine Alibrandi can remember, it’s just been her, her mom, and her grandmother. Now it’s her final year at a wealthy Catholic high school. The nuns couldn’t be any stricter – but that doesn’t seem to stop all kinds of men from coming into her life.
Caught between the old-world values of her Italian grandmother, the nononsense wisdom of her mom, and the boys who continue to mystify her, Josephine is on the ride of her life. This will be the year she falls in love, the year she discovers the secrets of her family’s past – and the year she sets herself free.
Tomorrow, When the War Began
by John Marsden, 1993
When Ellie and her friends return from a camping trip in the Australian bush, they find things hideously wrong – their families are gone. Gradually they begin to comprehend that their country has been invaded and everyone in their town has been taken prisoner. As the reality of the situation hits them, they must make a decision – run and hide, give themselves up and be with their families, or fight back.
He Died With A Felafel In His Hand
by John Birmingham, 1994
Cult shared-housing comedy classic. These hilarious tales of urban terror reveal the dark truth hidden behind three seemingly innocent words – a phrase that you have seen a hundred times before but will never view in the same light again – wanted to share. John Birmingham’s rendering of a life in share houses will leave you laughing, cringing and reminiscing about your own brushes with the mad, add residents of flatmate hell.
by Doris Pilkington, 1996
Following an Australian government edict in 1931, black aboriginal children and children of mixed marriages were gathered up by whites and taken to settlements to be assimilated. In Rabbit-Proof Fence, award-winning author Doris Pilkington traces the captivating story of her mother, Molly, one of three young girls uprooted from her community in Southwestern Australia and taken to the Moore River Native Settlement. At the settlement, Milly and her relatives Gracie and Daisy were forbidden to speak their native language, forced to abandon their aboriginal heritage, and taught to be culturally white. After regular stays in solitary confinement, the three girls scared and homesick planned and executed a daring escape from the grim camp, with its harsh life of padlocks, barred windows, and hard cold beds.
by Luke Davies, 1997
He met Candy amid a lush Sydney summer. Gorgeous, sexy, free-spirited Candy. They fell in love fast, lots of laughter and lust, the days melting warmly into each other. He never planned to give her a habit. But she wanted a taste. And wasn’t love, after all, about sharing lives? Candy had a bit of money and in the beginning, everything was beautiful. Heady, heroin-hazed days, the world open and inviting. But when the money ran out, the craving remained, and the days ceased their luxurious stretch.
by Murray Bail, 1998
The gruff widower Holland has two possessions he cherishes above all others: his sprawling property of eucalyptus trees and his ravishingly beautiful daughter, Ellen.
When Ellen turns nineteen Holland makes an announcement: she may marry only the man who can correctly name the species of each of the hundreds of gum trees on his property. Ellen is uninterested in the many suitors who arrive from around the world, until one afternoon she chances on a strange, handsome young man resting under a Coolibah tree.
True History of the Kelly Gang
by Peter Carey, 2000
In True History of the Kelly Gang, the legendary Ned Kelly speaks for himself, scribbling his narrative on errant scraps of paper in semiliterate but magically descriptive prose as he flees from the police. To his pursuers, Kelly is nothing but a monstrous criminal, a thief and a murderer. To his own people, the lowly class of ordinary Australians, the bushranger is a hero, defying the authority of the English to direct their lives. Indentured by his bootlegger mother to a famous horse thief (who was also her lover), Ned saw his first prison cell at 15 and by the age of 26 had become the most wanted man in the wild colony of Victoria, taking over whole towns and defying the law until he was finally captured and hanged. Here is a classic outlaw tale, made alive by the skill of a great novelist.
I Am the Messenger
by Markus Zusak, 2002
Ed Kennedy is an underage cabdriver without much of a future. He’s pathetic at playing cards, hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey, and utterly devoted to his coffee-drinking dog, the Doorman. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery. That’s when the first ace arrives in the mail.
The Secret River
by Kate Grenville, 2005
In 1806 William Thornhill, an illiterate English bargeman and a man of quick temper but deep compassion, steals a load of wood and, as a part of his lenient sentence, is deported, along with his beloved wife, Sal, to the New South Wales colony in what would become Australia. The Secret River is the tale of William and Sal’s deep love for their small, exotic corner of the new world, and William’s gradual realization that if he wants to make a home for his family, he must forcibly take the land from the people who came before him. Acclaimed around the world, The Secret River is a magnificent, transporting work of historical fiction.
by Alexis Wright, 2006
Alexis Wright employs mysticism, stark reality, and pointed imagination to re-create the land and the Aboriginal people of Carpentaria.
In the sparsely populated northern Queensland town of Desperance, loyalties run deep and battle lines have been drawn between the powerful Phantom family, leaders of the Westend Pricklebush people, and Joseph Midnight’s renegade Eastend mob, and their disputes with the white officials of neighboring towns. Steeped in myth and magical realism, Wright’s hypnotic storytelling exposes the heartbreaking realities of Aboriginal life.
by Tim Winton, 2008
Luther Fox, a loner, haunted by his past, makes his living as an illegal fisherman, a shamateur. Before everyone in his family was killed in a freak rollover, he grew melons and played guitar in the family band. Robbed of all that, he has turned his back on music. There’s too much emotion in it, too much memory and pain.
A Fraction of the Whole
by Steve Toltz, 2008
For most of his life, Jasper Dean couldn’t decide whether to pity, hate, love, or murder his certifiably paranoid father, Martin, a man who overanalyzed anything and everything and imparted his self-garnered wisdom to his only son. But now that Martin is dead, Jasper can fully reflect on the crackpot who raised him in intellectual captivity, and what he realizes is that, for all its lunacy, theirs was a grand adventure.
by Christos Tsiolkas, 2008
At a suburban barbecue, a man slaps a child who is not his own.
This event has a shocking ricochet effect on a group of people, mostly friends, who are directly or indirectly influenced by the slap.
In this remarkable novel, Christos Tsiolkas turns his unflinching and all-seeing eye onto that which connects us all: the modern family and domestic life in the twenty-first century. The Slap is told from the points of view of eight people who were present at the barbecue. The slap and its consequences force them all to question their own families and the way they live, their expectations, beliefs and desires.
by Craig Silvey, 2009
Late on a hot summer night in 1965, Charlie Bucktin, a precocious and bookish boy of thirteen, is startled by an urgent knock on the window of his sleep-out. His visitor is Jasper Jones, an outcast in the regional mining town of Corrigan.
Rebellious, mixed-race and solitary, Jasper is a distant figure of danger and intrigue for Charlie. So when Jasper begs for his help, Charlie eagerly steals into the night by his side, terribly afraid but desperate to impress. Jasper takes him to his secret glade in the bush, and it’s here that Charlie bears witness to Jasper’s horrible discovery.
Stolen: A Letter to My Captor
by Lucy Christopher, 2009
It happened like this. I was stolen from an airport. Taken from everything I knew, everything I was used to. Taken to sand and heat, dirt and danger. And he expected me to love him.
This is my story. A letter from nowhere.
Sixteen-year-old Gemma is kidnapped from Bangkok airport and taken to the Australian Outback. This wild and desolate landscape becomes almost a character in the book, so vividly is it described. Ty, her captor, is no stereotype. He is young, fit and completely gorgeous. This new life in the wilderness has been years in the planning. He loves only her, wants only her. Under the hot glare of the Australian sun, cut off from the world outside, can the force of his love make Gemma love him back?
That Deadman Dance
by Kim Scott, 2010
Big-hearted, moving and richly rewarding, That Deadman Dance is set in the first decades of the 19th century in the area around what is now Albany, Western Australia. In playful, musical prose, the book explores the early contact between the Aboriginal Noongar people and the first European settlers.
The novel’s hero is a young Noongar man named Bobby Wabalanginy. Clever, resourceful and eager to please, Bobby befriends the new arrivals, joining them hunting whales, tilling the land, exploring the hinterland and establishing the fledgling colony. He is even welcomed into a prosperous local white family where he falls for the daughter, Christine, a beautiful young woman who sees no harm in a liaison with a native.
by Christopher J. Koch, 2012
Young Hugh Dixon believes he can save his father from ruin if he asks his estranged great-uncle Walter – a wealthy lawyer who lives alone in a Tasmanian farmhouse passed down through the family – for help. As he is drawn into Walter′s rarefied world, Hugh discovers that both his uncle and the farmhouse are links to a notorious episode in the mid nineteenth century.
Mateship With Birds
by Carrie Tiffany, 2012
On the outskirts of an Australian country town in the 1950s, a lonely farmer trains his binoculars on a family of kookaburras that roost in a tree near his house. Harry observes the kookaburras through a year of feast, famine, birth, death, war, romance and song. As Harry watches the birds, his next door neighbour has her own set of binoculars trained on him. Ardent, hard-working Betty has escaped to the country with her two fatherless children. Betty is pleased that her son, Michael, wants to spend time with the gentle farmer next door. But when Harry decides to teach Michael about the opposite sex, perilous boundaries are crossed.
Questions of Travel
by Michelle de Kretser, 2012
A mesmerising literary novel, Questions of Travel charts two very different lives. Laura travels the world before returning to Sydney, where she works for a publisher of travel guides. Ravi dreams of being a tourist until he is driven from Sri Lanka by devastating events.
Around these two superbly drawn characters, a double narrative assembles an enthralling array of people, places and stories – from Theo, whose life plays out in the long shadow of the past, to Hana, an Ethiopian woman determined to reinvent herself in Australia.
The Light Between Oceans
by M.L. Stedman, 2012
A captivating, beautiful, and stunningly accomplished debut novel that opens in 1918 Australia – the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife who make one devastating choice that forever changes two worlds.
Australia, 1926. After four harrowing years fighting on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns home to take a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
by Richard Flanagan, 2013
A novel of the cruelty of war, and tenuousness of life and the impossibility of love.
Richard Flanagan’s story – of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor haunted by a love affair with his uncle’s wife – journeys from the caves of Tasmanian trappers in the early twentieth century to a crumbling pre-war beachside hotel, from a Thai jungle prison to a Japanese snow festival, from the Changi gallows to a chance meeting of lovers on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The Swan Book
by Alexis Wright, 2013
The Swan Book is set in the future, with Aboriginals still living under the Intervention in the north, in an environment fundamentally altered by climate change. It follows the life of a mute young woman called Oblivia, the victim of gang-rape by petrol-sniffing youths, from the displaced community where she lives in a hulk, in a swamp filled with rusting boats, and thousands of black swans, to her marriage to Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia, and her elevation to the position of First Lady, confined to a tower in a flooded and lawless southern city.
The Rosie Project
by Graeme Simsion, 2013
Don Tillman, professor of genetics, has never been on a second date. He is a man who can count all his friends on the fingers of one hand, whose lifelong difficulty with social rituals has convinced him that he is simply not wired for romance. So when an acquaintance informs him that he would make a “wonderful” husband, his first reaction is shock. Yet he must concede to the statistical probability that there is someone for everyone, and he embarks upon The Wife Project. In the orderly, evidence-based manner with which he approaches all things, Don sets out to find the perfect partner. She will be punctual and logical—most definitely not a barmaid, a smoker, a drinker, or a late-arriver.
by Emily Bitto, 2014
On her first day at a new school, Lily meets Eva, one of the daughters of the infamous avant-garde painter Evan Trentham. He and his wife are attempting to escape the stifling conservatism of 1930s Australia by inviting other like-minded artists to live and work with them at their family home. As Lily’s friendship with Eva grows, she becomes infatuated with this makeshift family and longs to truly be a part of it.
by Peggy Frew, 2015
It is the winter of 1985. Hope Farm sticks out of the ragged landscape like a decaying tooth, its weatherboard walls sagging into the undergrowth. Silver’s mother, Ishtar, has fallen for the charismatic Miller, and the three of them have moved to the rural hippie commune to make a new start.
by Steve Toltz, 2015
Liam is a struggling writer and a failing cop. Aldo, his best friend and muse, is a haplessly criminal entrepreneur with an uncanny knack for disaster. As Aldo’s luck worsens, Liam is inspired to base his next book on his best friend’s exponential misfortunes and hopeless quest to win back his one great love: his ex-wife, Stella. What begins as an attempt to make sense of Aldo’s mishaps spirals into a profound story of faith and friendship.
The Other Side of the World
by Stephanie Bishop, 2015
Cambridge 1963. Charlotte struggles to reconnect with the woman she was before children, and to find the time and energy to paint. Her husband, Henry, cannot face the thought of another English winter. A brochure slipped through the letterbox gives him the answer: ‘Australia brings out the best in you’.
Charlotte is too worn out to resist, and before she knows it is travelling to the other side of the world. But on their arrival in Perth, the southern sun shines a harsh light on both Henry and Charlotte and slowly reveals that their new life is not the answer either was hoping for.
Talking To My Country
by Stan Grant, 2016
An extraordinarily powerful and personal meditation on race, culture and national identity.
Talking to My Country is that rare and special book that talks to every Australian about their country – what it is, and what it could be. It is not just about race, or about indigenous people but all of us, our shared identity. Direct, honest and forthright, Stan is talking to us all. He might not have all the answers but he wants us to keep on asking the question: how can we be better?
The Hate Race
by Maxine Beneba Clarke, 2016
‘Against anything I had ever been told was possible, I was turning white. On the surface of my skin, a miracle was quietly brewing…’
Suburban Australia. Sweltering heat. Three bedroom blonde-brick. Family of five. Beat-up Ford Falcon. Vegemite on toast. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s life is just like all the other Aussie kids on her street.
Except for this one, glaring, inescapably obvious thing.
What do you think of these books set in Australia?
Have a great book recommendation I’ve missed? I’d love to hear about more books set in Australia in the comments below!