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8 Evocative Australian Novels

For me, the pull of Australian literature is as much about the stories and the prose as it is about my vision of the country and my memories of living there. After I returned to Ireland, I often found myself fixating on the idea of the country as something simply too large and too vast to accurately sum up, and so it became something exotic and abnormal when compared to my life in tiny Ireland. I never really got to understand the country well, and an inability to capture its essence in my head twisted it into something unknowable and alien – the harsh terrain, the billowing oven heat, the animals and creatures of its land and waters, the sheer expanse, and all its tumultuous history.

When I lived there briefly in 2010, the rainforests were as mystifying and as strange as the dusty arid desert sands or the ramshackle fishing villages or the stifling suburbs buzzing with insects. And really, it’s impossible to distill Australia in eight books, let alone one, but below are a broad selection of books that I think, in my humble opinion, attempt it. At the very least, they make for some great reading.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Some people know it as the 1967 book, some as the 1975 film. I wasn’t too enamored with the film, and it hasn’t dated well. The book, however, is a classic. Framed as a true story, it’s entirely fictional and tells the tale of how a group of young school girls and their teacher mysteriously vanish at Hanging Rock in Victoria while on a school trip. It sparked a frenzy of furious debate at the time of its release due in part to its ending and dreamlike prose, and it's largely responsible for the folklore of the mysterious Australian outback. 

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Voss

This one is based on the true story of explorer and naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt and his ill-fated exploration of Northern and Central Australia in 1848. The outback is once again portrayed as something unconquerable and unknowable. The central character, the German explorer Voss, deals with two journeys – the physical and that of a more metaphysical dual journey alongside his partner Laura. 

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Cloudstreet

Often we hear about American epics portraying the life of a person or a family over a period of time. Here is Winton’s Australian slant, documenting twenty years of two families, the Pickles and the Lambs. The lives of the two families intertwine over and over across the span of these twenty years connected by various incidents and tragedies. It might sound downbeat and dour, but there are moments of sheer joy and elation too. It is a terrifically well written book and one that is hugely rewarding.

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Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence

Throughout the four works of fiction she wrote, Pilkington documented the hardships of three generations of Aboriginal women in her homeland. Her first, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, named after the pest-exclusion barrier between east and west Australia, was perhaps her most successful. It draws on her personal experience as one of the Stolen Generation and how she, like her mother before her, was taken away from her family and put up for adoption elsewhere, something that the government didn’t apologize for until 2008.

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My Place

An incredibly popular novel when it was released in 1987, Morgan’s My Place deals with a number of issues including racial identity. It describes how at the age of 15, she was told that her supposed Indian heritage was a lie and that in fact she was descended from the Bailgu people of Western Australia. In very honest and forthright fashion, Morgan tracks back in time to unearth the truths of the troubled lives of the generations before her and continues the research right up to her own life. 

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The Thorn Birds

Australia’s best selling novel of all time, with global sales around the 33 million mark, McCullough’s second novel, published in 1977, is set on a fictional sheep station and spans 54 years in the life of the Cleary family. There’s a lot of made-for-TV romance and scandal involved, but as dramas go, it hit the mark with a lot of people who wanted to see another side to Australia’s outback.

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My Brilliant Career

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin would go on to be the namesake of both the Miles Franklin Award (that Patrick White’s Voss won in 1957) and the Stella Award, two of Australia’s biggest literary prizes. My Brilliant Career was published in 1901 and went on to become a cornerstone of Australian literature. It revolves around young heroin Sybylla Melvyn who grew up in the Australian countryside during the 1890s. With the successful tv adaptation of My Brilliant Career in 1979, interest in Franklin’s life and work rose again.

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Death of a River Guide

I’ve chosen Flanagan's Death of a River Guide, but really you could select everything he’s written. A writer capable of writing anything – be it fiction, non-fiction, biographies or essays – he has an uncanny knack for creating beautiful sentences and writing page-turning prose. His debut Death of a River Guide is about a dying man haunted with visions that force him to re-examine his life, and is a must-read.

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Shane O’Reilly has lived in Dublin all his life; that’s 34 years of memories and adventures around the city centre. While he watched as his friends emigrated during the recession, he started ... Show More

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