Australia has produced several writers who are well-known and well-regarded internationally, including Patrick White, Peter Carey, Tim Winton, David Malouf, and Peter Temple. Among women writers, however, only Colleen McCullough is truly well known outside of Australia. That’s a shame because there are many other female Australian writers of note who should be more widely read. Each of them has gained critical respect at home and internationally, but they remain relatively unknown to readers.
Kate Grenville came to the publishing world’s attention with her fourth novel, The Idea of Perfection, in 1999. It won the Orange Award (now the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction) in 2000. But her best work, and one that everyone should read, is The Secret River, published in 2006. Based on the story of her great-great-great-grandfather, who was sentenced to the penal colony in New South Wales in 1806, it tells the story of the early settlement of Australia by British convicts. The Secret River won the Commonwealth Prize, the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, and the NSW Premier’s Community Relations Prize. It was also short-listed for the UK’s Man Booker Prize.
If you are going to read only one book about Australia’s history and its effect on the nation’s culture, it should be The Secret River. By following British convict William Thornhill (based on her ancestor, Solomon Wiseman) as he struggles to adapt to life in what feels like another world, Grenville is able to examine the fraught history of relations between the colonists and the Aborigines who have inhabited the Australian continent for over 40,000 years. Suffice to say, their first contact is not a mutually respectful and beneficial encounter.
Grenville’s writing brilliantly captures Australia as a place; its presence looms over the novel. You will breathe the red dust, watch the blinding southern sun’s reflection on the Hawkesbury River, and smell the menthol scent of the eucalyptus (gum) trees.
Grenville followed The Secret River with The Lieutenant (2008), which details the tentative and developing friendship between an officer of the First Fleet and an Aborigine girl of exceptional intelligence. In Sarah Thornhill (2011), Grenville completed this loose “early Australia” trilogy by returning to the family at the center of The Secret River, taking the subject of white-black relations to its logical conclusion. I recommend all three novels, but only The Secret River is required reading.
Joan London is from Western Australia, which features prominently in her writing. London’s first novel, Gilgamesh, published in 2001, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and won The Age Book of the Year award for fiction. Gilgamesh was also shortlisted for both the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award and the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award. Internationally, it was longlisted for the Orange Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
Set in the years preceding World War II, Gilgamesh follows Edith, a 17-year-old who lives with her unstable mother and difficult sister in rural Western Australia. The story is set in motion when her London-based brother Leopold and his Armenian friend Aram visit her after working on an archaeological dig in Iraq. Edith and Aram experience a powerful chemistry. Two years later, having given birth to Aram’s son and saved money from her job at a seaside hotel, Edith boards a ship intending to go to Armenia to find Aram. She is befriended by an Armenian businessman who helps sneak her into the country and for whom she then works as a caretaker. She begins to build a life in Yerevan, but the war presses down upon everyone and she is forced to flee across the border into Iraq to meet Leopold, who drives her to Syria, where she waits out the war. Like the wandering King Gilgamesh, Edith’s journey takes her to many places and introduces her to a range of people, each of whom is searching for his place and purpose. London’s prose is both spare and lyrical, with a hypnotic and haunting effect.
London’s second novel, The Good Parents, was published in April 2008 and won the 2009 Christina Stead Prize for fiction in the NSW Premier’s Literary awards. London’s third novel, The Golden Age, was published in Australia in 2014 and issued in the U.S. by Europa Editions in 2016. It won the 2015 Australian Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, the 2015 Patrick White Literary Award, and several other Australian awards, and was named a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2016.
The Golden Age follows the Gold family, Hungarian Jews, as they flee WWII and land in Perth, Australia. Thirteen-year-old Frank is struck with polio and is sent for treatment to The Golden Age children’s hospital. Frank battles the dread disease that terrified people in the 1940s and 1950s, at the same time falling in love with a fellow patient, Elsa. It’s a classic coming-of-age story set in a polio ward. We also observe the lives of Frank’s parents as they cope with the drastically different world of 1950s Perth, his father driving a truck and slowly becoming an Australian and his mother, a famous concert pianist in Hungary, stubbornly refusing to assimilate. London tells a moving story in crisp but lyrical prose and it makes for a very satisfying read.
Evie Wyld is a relative newcomer on the Australian and international literary scene. Her second novel, All the Birds, Singing, was published last year to acclaim in Australia and the UK (where she was named a Granta Best of Young British Novelists in 2008), and has just been released in the U.S.
Wyld is a powerful prose stylist whose approach is perfectly suited to the story of Jake Whyte, a young Australian woman living with her dog and a flock of sheep on an isolated English island. When her sheep are killed one by one, mysterious events occur and strangers appear, Jake is forced to confront her past, which she thought she had securely left behind halfway around the world in Australia.
Wyld is a master of mood, using a methodical pace and distinctive diction and syntax to create an often ominous or foreboding atmosphere that makes her novels feel like very artsy and literary mysteries. Fans of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca should find Evie Wyld’s books to be just what the doctor ordered.
Charlotte Wood has written a novel set in the near future that is nevertheless a story of and for these times. It is in the narrowest sense a dystopian novel, in that it describes a circumstance that does not yet exist but that requires very little suspension of disbelief to accept. It is this close to being plausible. The Natural Way of Things made a big impression in Australia, where it was awarded the 2016 Stella Prize as the best novel by an Australian woman.
Wood uses the allegory of a group of young women imprisoned on an abandoned Outback sheep station for the impact of their sexual escapades on men of means to explore the contemporary landscape of widespread misogyny, in which victims of rape and sexual assault are put on trial in the media and in the courtroom. It is a world where people seem more fully engaged on social media than in their actual lives and where faceless corporations are an inextricable part of our lives, often knowing more about us than we could imagine. But resentment of the gender double standard has reached critical mass and women are fighting back.
Wood’s prose has a spare, poetic quality that matches the austere beauty of the Australian bush setting. One can feel the blazing heat, see the dust in the air, and hear the oppressive silence from the isolation. In The Natural Way of Things, Wood has created a world that is equal parts Mad Max: Fury Road and The Handmaid’s Tale.
Wood’s new novel, The Weekend, will be published in Australia in October and by Riverhead Books in the U.S. in 2020.
Michelle de Kretser may well be Australia’s greatest writer of the new century. She has been praised by Hilary Mantel, Ursula K. Le Guin, and A.S. Byatt. In her five novels, she has addressed the nature of identity (being a Sri Lankan immigrant to Australia), belonging and alienation, and captures perhaps better than anyone the challenges and conflicts inherent in dualities of ethnicity, class, and nationality. She is famous for her acute observational skills and biting sense of humor. She sees through everyone and everything and skewers the deserving.
Her most recent novel, The Life to Come, won the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award (her second) and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction (her third win, tying Peter Carey), and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize (for women’s fiction). Reviews compared her to the likes of Flaubert, Jane Austen, Shirley Hazzard, and fellow Australian Patrick White. The Life to Come is not a novel in the usual sense; it’s essentially five long stories featuring different characters; the presence of an aspiring and naïve young writer named Pippa serves to connect them. De Kretser has much to say about the art of storytelling and the dangers of using real people for inspiration.
Felicity Castagna’s third book moved her into the forefront of Australian writers. After a well-regarded novel and story collection, 2017’s No More Boats made a big splash with its timely story of an earlier generation of immigrants closing the door on those trying to immigrate now. Antonio built a new life in the working-class western suburbs of Sydney in the late 1960s and 1970s, including raising two children whom he is proud to call Australian. No hyphenated ethnic-national identity for him! He’s a true blue fair dinkum Aussie.
Now it’s 2001, Antonio is much older, recently unemployed from a lifetime of construction work, and both Australia and his family have changed in ways that make them less recognizable — and increasingly frustrating — to him. The situation disintegrates further when the Tampa, a boat with 400 refugees, is held 15 miles offshore by the government. Antonio becomes entangled in the resulting social and political soap opera, which has been inflamed by the media (remember, Rupert Murdoch got his start in Australia).
No More Boats is a probing exploration of family life, immigration, changing cultures, and the things we do to find and keep our place in the world. It’s not surprising that it was a finalist for Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Voss Literary Prize.
Iwaki Kei went to Australia 20 years ago to study English after graduating from college in Japan. She never left. Her experiences and those of other immigrants eventually led to this fast, powerful read that provides insight into a key aspect of the immigrant experience that we don’t hear much about.
Farewell, My Orange is a gem of a novella that should be required reading of, well, everyone. Set in a tiny town on the Australian coast, it tells the story of two recent immigrants: Salimah, who fled Nigeria, and Sayuri, who has accompanied her husband from Japan while he completes his graduate studies. Salimah’s husband has abandoned her and their two young sons in a country where she knows no one, can barely speak the language, and is in a state of culture shock. Sayuri has postponed her own graduate studies and spends her days caring for her baby daughter.
The two young women meet in an English as a Second Language class attended by students from several countries, with widely varying English skills. Over time, Sayuri begins to help Salimah with her English work. Despite their completely different life experiences, they share a shy but tenacious nature, and one of the many pleasures of Farewell, My Orange is watching them develop a friendship through a second language neither is comfortable with.
Salimah’s story gives us an intimate view of the immigrant experience, focusing on the key role language plays in adapting to a new country and culture. Slowly, these two women, often gritting their teeth, find their way into the English language and the Australian culture. Farewell, My Orange allows the reader to experience their struggles to build a new life with a new language.
After a trilogy of award-winning novels set in her native Tasmania, Heather Rose shifted gears drastically with The Museum of Modern Love, set in the modern art world of New York City. At home, it won the 2017 Stella Prize for best book (fiction or nonfiction) by a woman and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction. In the U.S., it received starred reviews in Booklist, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly.
Her next novel, Bruny, will be published in October. And it sounds like a book you can really sink your teeth into. Bruny Island is just off the coast of Tasmania and is only accessible by boat and the car ferry. The government has decided to build a massive bridge, longer than the Brooklyn Bridge, to connect the isolated island to Tasmania. Naturally, there is fierce opposition to this infrastructure project which will change life on Bruny forever. Astrid Coleman is a conflict resolution specialist for the UN who has returned home to Tasmania help her brother, the premier (governor) of Tasmania, calm the warring factions. Her sister is the leader of the opposition. Astrid finds herself caught between the advocates for progress and those who favor maintaining the special nature of Bruny Island – and, perhaps more dauntingly, between her brother and sister.
Two other writers worth reading are Claire Coleman and Felicity McLean, whose debut novels, Terra Nullius (Small Beer Press) and The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone (Algonquin Books), have made an impression. Look for my reviews of their books shortly.