View Full Version : Matt's Friendly Guide to Reading Contemporary Australian Literature
In response to kpjayan's wish for me to give him some suggestions on what to read from Australia, I present to you, the forum, a fun-filled guide to contemporary Australian literature. Please note, all views contained herein are mine and mine along - I don't pretend to speak for the entire nation. Also, I'm a young, carefree student, so my tastes might be way off. Feel free to add your own suggestions/comments/criticisms...
I suppose I should start with the biggies. I assume (hopefully not incorrectly) that a few people overseas have heard of Tim Winton. His novels are, even though not to my taste particularly, quite popular here, and straddle that fine line between literature and pop (whatever that means). His most famous novel is probably Cloudstreet, which is now considered a modern classic and is taught in schools, though his newest one, Breath, is also supposed to be very good.
Just as Winton's novels are very Western Australia specific, Richard Flanagan's novel are very Tasmania specific. For Flanagan, see The Sound of One Hand Clapping and Gould's Book of Fish.
I should point out that I personally like neither Winton nor Flanagan, but the rest of the country seems to, so clearly I know nothing...
David Malouf is another biggie that's been around for a while, and his most famous works include Remembering Babylon and An Imaginary Life. Murray Bail is another big name, and despite having only written four novels, has been around forever. Look out for Eucalyptus (one of the best Australian novels of all time) and Homesickness.
The Secret River, by Kate Grenville, was published in 2004, and has become quite a popular 'modern classic', as it were. It deals with issues of settlers and Aboriginals - a theme that is quite popular with Australians at the moment. Another book that does (I think) a better job at looking at this tension is The White Earth, a departure from Andrew McGahan's usual grunge literature playground. It won the Miles Franklin Award (our most prestigeous national fiction award) in 2005, and rightly so, I think. And we can't go past talking about Aboriginality without mentioning Alexis Wright, arguably our only mainstram Aboriginal writer. She has only written two novels, Plains of Promise and Carpentaria, but both are very, very good. Carpentaria won the Miles Franklin in 2007.
Most of these authors deal with the history of Australia in their novels - I wonder if this is because we don't really have 'historical fiction' from when these events actually occured. For those more interested in modern Australia, there are some emerging authors that are unmissable.
Christos Tsiolkas has been around for a good 10-15 years, but it wasn't until last year that he finally began to receive the recognition he deserved with The Slap. His books are amazing, and deal with suburban issues that most other authors are too scared to go near.
Also concerning the cuburbs, Steven Carroll's Glenroy Trilogy (The Art of the Engine Driver, The Gift of Speed, The Time We Have Taken) are a brilliant look at the suburbs of Australia, and the people who grew up in them.
I'm going to stop. I could keep going, but I won't. Now, I expect each and every one of you to go out and read at least one of these authors. Do it... I promise you won't be disappointed. Actually, I can't really do that, but I don't think you will be, so there you go.
Just out of curiosity, Matt, what do you think of Gerald Murnane? He's been growin' on me for quite some time now, both the essays and the fiction. I started a thread on him a while back, but other than the omnipresent Mirabell hardly anyone had bothered to reply.
I've just finished Flanagan's Wanting (like, a week ago) and was favorably impressed. The plot, the language, the dialogue, the juxtaposition of two divergent historical eras were all excellent, but boy oh boy is Flanagan DEPRESSING!
Of all the others that you mention I've only heard of Kate Grenville, in connection with the Booker Prize.
You know, I'd never heard of him (Gerald Murnane) until I saw that thread of yours the other day. He's certainly not a big name here (unless I've just missed all the signs, though I don't think I have), but I should probably check him out sometime...
Recent Australian titles that I've picked up, because of their Penguin Modern Classic status, have been titles from Robert Drewe, Randolph Stow, and Elizabeth Jolley.
I've read one winner of the Australian/Vogel Literary Award - 2004's Road Story by Juliene Van Loon - but, looking over the award's recipients, only two seem to have made any sort of splash beyond Oz: Tim Winton and Kate Grenville.
I've only read Robert Drewe's memoir, The Shark Net.
Please tell me you picked up The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea. I think that's the only PMC of Stow's at the moment, but it's seriously one of th ebest Australian novels I've ever read. It's not very well known, but I'm doing my best to change that! I blogged (wow, I can't believe I just used that verb) about it here (http://matttodd.wordpress.com/2008/08/24/29-the-merry-go-round-in-the-sea-randolph-stow/). Having said that, I don't think my review does it justice - there's an excellent passage near the end, where Rob is talking about how he feels about Australia, and it's exactly my thoughts, too. Good times.
I have also never read Elizabeth Jolley, but I feel I should. Maybe soon...
I've only read Robert Drewe's memoir, The Shark Net.
It was The Bodysurfers that I picked up.
Please tell me you picked up The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea. I think that's the only PMC of Stow's at the moment, but it's seriously one of the best Australian novels I've ever read.
That's the exact one, yes. Also picked up Donald Horne's The Lucky Country, but didn't mention it originally as it was non-fiction.
How about B. Wongar? He's still around.
I love hearing about Australian authors I didn't even know existed!
A quick check on titlepage (Australian booksellers' stock site) suggests he is out of print, but perhaps a trip to a second-hand bookstore might uncover something...
Lol, also, after checking out that website, it turns out one of my lecturers from last year wrote some stuff on him. The coincidences!
Walg is a novel by B. Wongar, and this is the blurb from the jacket of the American edition. As you can imagine, it's a powerful book:
?The author of this haunting novel, born of mixed aboriginal-European heritage, has lived in the tradition of tribal poetry, much of it taught to him by his late tribal wife, Djumala, the heroine of his tale. According to the fertility cult of the aborigines, the land is an extension of man?s body and soul, a unity with nature that ensures regeneration cycles. If it is disturbed, life would cease. Here, it is the white man, the balandas, who are the disturbance as they ravage the earth in their lustful search for uranium wealth, even as they rape and mutilate the tribal girls whose destruction will extinguish the tribe and vacate the mineral-rich territory for the whites.
?In this story we follow Djumala, carrying her unborn child, as she journeys with her dog, Muru, across the familiar Australian bush away from the land of the white man to Gamitji, her tribal country, her walg, or womb. She seeks her mother to learn the tribal secrets of motherhood and thus prolong the life of her decimated tribe. It is a desolate journey through the shattered landscape that the white man has strangled by his plunder, stealing the magic that made the rain. But there is still magic left in the protection of the tribal spirits and the legend that life can sprout from dust, if there is a woman around to mother it.?
Nobody's mentioned Carey yet? For my money, Peter Carey and David Malouf are the two finest prose stylists from Australia still writing. I just finished Malouf's new novel based on the Trojan war, Ransom, and it confirms his mastery. Carey has a new novel coming out later this year, which I have slight hopes that I can get an advance copy of as I have contacts at Penguin. All of his novels are terrific.
I love Richard Flanagan, and Wanting is a welcome return to the literary fiction he does best after the misconceived The Unknown Terrorist. Gould's Book of Fish is a masterpiece, and a beautiful object as a book in its hardback incarnation.
I read Winton's Breath recently and was impressed. Winton seems quite straightforward but there's more going on in his novels than first impressions might lead you to believe.
Also just read The Slap and was very impressed with my first taste of Tsiolkas. It's deservedly acclaimed, but I'm not surprised it hasn't been published overseas yet. It's very Melbourne-centric (set in the broad area of the inner-northern suburbs where I live) and has a lot of Australian colloquialism and location specific references (cultural and geographic) that would perhaps fall flat for people not in the know.
No mention of Helen Garner yet either. The Spare Room was her recent return to fiction after more than a decade and confirmed what a good writer she is.
I liked The Secret River, but I'm not entirely convinced of Grenville's greatness. It's a very 'teachable' book, though, and it was no surprise to see it appear on the Year 12 English syllabus here in Victoria.
Sonya Hartnett is one of Australia's best writers, but had to break out of years of being pigeon-holed as a Young Adult author (mostly because her first novel was published when she was 15, over twenty years ago). People should definitely read her novels such as Thursday's Child, Of a Boy and Surrender.
Drewe and Jolley are both fine writers (I'm teaching The Shark Net at the moment).
Thomas Keneally is a giant of Australian literature not yet mentioned, most famous, obviously, for Schindler's Ark, but also check out The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith in particular.
Speaking of Booker Prize winners, there's DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little) of course.
Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize a couple of years ago for March (she has dual Australian/US citizenship), but I really didn't rate her earlier novel Year of Wonders.
Elliott Perlman is a very fine writer, and both Three Dollars, which was adapted into a film, and the epic Seven Types of Ambiguity are worth people's time.
Other contemporary Australian writers worth checking out (all women, coincidentally) include Julia Leigh (The Hunter, and has a new novel just out, Disquiet, which just won the Encore Prize for a second novel), Joan London (Gilgamesh), MJ Hyland (Carry Me Down), Kate Jennings (Moral Hazard), Janette Turner Hospital (Orpheus Lost, Michelle de Kretser (The Lost Dog), Delia Falconer (The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers) and Amy Witting (I for Isobel).
Does Coetzee count as Australian now that he's lived here for a number of years and taken citizenship?
For those interested in following the Australian Government's determined destruction of our publishing industry, Richard Flanagan's closing address at the Sydney Writers' Festival is here (http://www.smh.com.au/news/entertainment/books/losing-our-voice/2009/05/29/1243456730637.html).
Read it, it's very interesting.
Cheer up, Liam, I've been reading Murnane too. I've read The Plains The Plains, by Gerald Murnane ANZ LitLovers LitBlog (http://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com/2009/10/01/the-plains-by-gerald-murnane/) and Inland Inland, by Gerald Murnane ANZ LitLovers LitBlog (http://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com/2009/10/03/inland-by-gerald-murnane/) and there's also some commentary about Murnane at Postmodernism for the Uninitiated ANZ LitLovers LitBlog (http://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com/2009/10/01/postmodernism-for-the-uninitiated/)
His latest book has just hit the bookshops, the quality Oz media is very interested, and it you click on the links at the bottom of my Inland post, it will take you to the some online reviews.
I read Tim Winton's "Dirt Music" a few months ago and was very moved by it. His prose is so lyrically descriptive that he makes you feel like you are actually in those places of the Western Australian outback. On the other hand he has a knack for creating believable, multi-dimensional characters and for giving them some of the most terrific dialogue lines I've read in recent time. I was most impressed overall. I look forward to reading "Cloudstreet" and "Breath".
Cheer up, Liam, I've been reading Murnane too... His latest book has just hit the bookshops...
Yes, I know, I've already placed an order for the Barley Patch (http://www.giramondopublishing.com/barley-patch) with the Giramondo Publishing company, ;).
can't believe no one's mentioned "My Brother Jack" by George Johnston. I only read it recently. An absolute classic.
The other Aussie nobody's mentioned is Christina Stead. She's from quite a few years back so I guess she slipped everyone's mind. Best known for "The Man Who Loved Children". "The Little Hotel" by her was also quite enjoyable.
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