Which books best capture a feeling of Australia for you?

You readers who frequent here, I need your help. My friend and her husband are immigrants and they are raising their Australian-born children here. My friend is open-hearted but after almost a decade of living here she has reached a point where she is now finding Australia rather impenetrable. You know, Australia can be somewhat aloof, difficult to pin down?

She has lots of Australian friends, she knows her city well and she loves the outdoors, although she has mostly experienced the outdoors in an urban way so far. My friend comes from the Northern Hemisphere and is used to living in rural areas; she misses those seasons and landscapes. She is feeling homesick. She understands that there is a way of connecting to natural Australian landscapes without European seasons and flora to guide her and she wants to know how; how to relate to this country and how to develop her own sense of place here with her Australian children…

So having explained all that, which books best capture the substance of particular natural Australian landscapes for you?

(Novels are particularly good but non-fiction suggestions are also welcome if you have a stand-out. And although English is not my friend’s native language her comprehension is excellent so feel free to suggest whatever books).

Categories: arts & entertainment, Culture


30 replies

  1. I need to follow whereever this thread goes because that is totally me. English is my first (and pretty much only) language but, otherwise, that sounds like me. I need to read some good Aussie books! *subscribes to comments, sits back and waits*

  2. The ones that spring to mind for me are set in ye olde times:
    Voss by Patrick White (Sydney and the big scary outback)
    Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Cary (Bellingen area, NSW)
    Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan (Tasmania)
    Also, anything by Tim Winton is great for the windswept coastal heath of south west WA.

  3. Even though his writing is mosly pitched as stories for children, I think Shaun Tan’s Tales From Suburbia makes for a gorgeous and throught provoking reading experience with a strong sense of place.
    In a different direction but with much breadth, some of the small press and literary journals can be worth a peruse: thinking the likes of Going Down Swinging, Sleepers and Griffith Review, yeah?
    (Finally, if you’ll allow me the liberty of including a film – but one that has interconnections back to an iconic Paul Kelly song, while draws on the very non-Australian Raymond Carver story: So much water so close to home is Jindabyne… all sorts of resonances and layers going on there about a sense of place)
    Hope that helps some.

  4. I would recommend Joan Colebrook’s ‘A House of Trees’ – it’s an autobiography, early-mid 20th century, and has a wonderful sense of *place*. It’s set primarily on the Atherton tablelands.
    Mary Grant Bruce’s ‘A Little Bush Maid’ is probably worth a shot, with the caveat that it contains the expected amount of incidental racism for a late 19th/early 20th century book.

  5. Alexis Wright, Elyne Mitchell and Colin Thiele are novelists I recommend. The last two wrote for children and young adults.
    Poets: Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Judith Wright and Douglas Stewart. Have to quote a bit of JW:
    South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country,
    rises that tableland, high delicate outline
    of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
    low trees, blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite-
    clean, lean, hungry country. The creek’s leaf-silenced,
    willow choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crabapple
    branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen;
    and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.

  6. Patrick White: A Fringe of Leaves
    Eleanor Dark: Timeless Land Trilogy (The Timeless Land, Storm of Time, No Barrier)
    Kate Grenville: The Secret River
    Christopher Koch: Out of Ireland
    Randolph Stow: The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea

  7. The Red Shoe – Ursula Dubosarsky (technically a children’s/YA book, but fantastic; she wrote it as part of her PhD)
    The Alphabet of Light and Dark – Danielle Wood
    February Dragon – Colin Thiele (an oldy but a goody; I read this is primary school many moons ago)
    Snake – Kate Jennings
    Poetry by Bruce Dawe
    um, that’s all I can think of for now.

  8. Hard to get, but try and get David Foster’s (Not David Foster Wallace, the Australian David Foster) Dog Rock and The Pale Blue Crocheted Coathanger Cover. They evoke small-town Australia wonderfully despite the nonsense level (which is a feature, not a bug). Or The Glade Within the Grove, which deals with small-town plus the hippie era.
    For small-town coastal, besides Tim Winton, Gretchen Schirm’s Having Cried Wolf would fit the bill (linked short stories)
    That’s rural, if you want urban, I’d recommend Helen Garner, Monkey Grip and The Children’s Bach. Written some time ago, but I think it still stands up.

  9. I’m originally a Queenslander, and Thea Astley does an amazing job of describing the tropical experience. It’s Raining in Mango will do as a start. Elizabeth Jolley – The Newspaper of Claremont Street is one of her best – is an amazing writer that everyone should know of. Oh, how could I forget, Peter Carey’s Bliss is wonderfully Nimbin-y jungly, and his Kelly Gang takes us from smalltown Victoria through some wonderful country.

  10. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, Blinky Bill, and The Magic Pudding – very witty and creative children’s classics that imaginatively explore the bush/bush creatures in ways that would be otherwise inaccessible.

  11. Seven Little Australians – to get a sense of how we feel we used to live. Perhaps Bill Bryson’s book about Australia? I haven’t read it but as someone coming into a somewhat alien (to him) culture it may have some interesting insights. Looking for Alibrandi? Storm Boy by Colin Thiele. Dorothy McKellar. If she likes crime Peter Corris does some good ones set in Sydney (Cliff Hardy) and Canberra. “They’re a Weird Mob” is good reading for anyone. Has she read any of Deborah Stangeland’s blog? (I know DS is from NZ but she still had some really interesting insights into the differences between Aus and NZ).

  12. Some children’s and young adult books – Remote Man by Elizabeth Honey, Deadly Unna and Nukkin Ya by Phillip Gwynne, Sonya Hartnett’s books. I’d recommend books by Ruth Park as well, especially Harp in the South, Poor Man’s Orange andFishing in the Styx.
    Ruby Langford Ginibi’s memoirs have fabulous descriptions of country side and seasons and of living in the city and suburbs as well. I’d also recommend some other Indigenous children’s books and YA books, by Melissa Lucashenko and the fabulous picture book
    Jirrbal: Rainforest Deamtime Stories by Maisie Yarrcali Barlow. Because I love it, and sometimes if you haven’t grown up in a place it helps to go back to childhood.

  13. Trying a different tack.
    Lonely Planet’s “Australia” – it shows Oz as a tourist, an outsider, would see it [well supposedly] and thus offers a different perspective. Plus when you read what they say about places you know it creates discussion.
    Bill Bryson’s book on Oz, I forget the title which probably has “Down Under” in it.
    Its very stereotyped but also perceptive and, again, causes argument ….”Are we really like that ?” And its funny.
    “The Social Atlas”.
    ABS book that presents Oz via census stats.
    Nothing like having stats to argue about.
    Sorry to be boring and unromantic.

  14. These are fabulous suggestions, thank you so much!

  15. I would second many of these suggestions, particularly A Fringe of Leaves, The Secret River and Tim Winton’s work. I’d also suggest The Slap, which has some scarily accurate inner Melbourne portrayals. Perhaps some of Peter Temple or Shane Moloney’s work if she doesn’t mind crime novels.

  16. My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch
    It’s a childhood favourite of mine

  17. I can’t go past “Come in Spinner”. Written just after WW2, the issues are still absolutely current.

  18. I think the suggestions of kidslit etc is a great starting point! No matter how old her kids are there is value in seeing the world through a childs eyes and so many kids books do that sort of thing well, especially big picture books.
    Suggestions in no particular order:
    The Rainbow Serpent [y’know that one from the 70’s that every school library had]
    Alison Lester’s books like Magic Beach and My Farm
    Any of the Dreamtime story books, many around for kids & adults
    The Silver Brumby, Possum Magic, Storm Boy, anything by Paul Jennings
    More adult-y types:
    A B Facey’s A Fortunate Life
    Debra Adelaide’s The Household Guide to Dying
    Sally Morgan’s My Place
    Songlines by Bruce Chatwin
    and a slightly sideways idea, but does she know anyone who has a reasonably coherent family history that included early pioneers? Fr’instance both sides of my family arrived here as settlers [in some form or another] about 6 generations ago, and how they got here & what they did after that makes some pretty interesting and not-that-unusual-for-the-time stories.

  19. Perhaps some of Peter Temple…

    Definitely, Jen.
    Temple’s The Broken Shore is magnificent in getting at that poor, insular, marginal, small-town coastal Australia. It’s not pleasant reading though.

    “They’re a Weird Mob” is good reading for anyone

    I agree, but only in the sense that it was a work of propaganda in favour of a certain kind of assimilating immigration experence before multiculturalism was Federal policy. O’Grady’s is a long-disappeared Australia.

  20. Golden Summers: Heidelberg & Beyond – it’s hard to get a hold of (I think there are a few second hand on amazon) but it’s the photo-book of the exhibition. It showcased a period in Australian art where painters were starting to get a feel for Australian landscapes and letting go of their preconceptions about how trees were ‘supposed’ to look.
    It’s beautiful and focuses lovingly on Australian landscapes done in Australian impressionism style – all about the light.

  21. O’Grady’s is a long-disappeared Australia.

    Absolutely, but I think that sometimes we still like to think that we are still like that. Ocker and all that.

  22. Seconding Alexis Wright and whatever-number-it-is-now-ing Colin Thiele. Wright’s Carpenteria is particularly good, and Thiele wrote a lot of excellent children’s/YA books and stories that detail the Australian environment and what it’s like to live here.
    For poetry, seconding Dorothea MacKellar and Judith Wright, and also adding Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson.
    I personally find Australian children’s/YA books to be the best at this sort of thing, so I’ll also add recommendations for John Marsden, Gillian Rubenstein, Mem Fox, and Morris Gleitzman.

  23. What an interesting thread!
    I don’t think I’ve seen Libby Hathorn (e.g. Thunderwith and its sequel, both are set in 1980s country, poss. Victoria??) or Robin Klein (e.g. All in the Blue Unclouded Weather and its sequel, Dresses of Red and Gold) mentioned, for their fantastic contribution to YA. AitBUC is a particular favourite of mine for being an Australian sort of Little Women – four sisters and a cousin and the the other girls they know, they can go from loving to spiteful and back again like that (set in country NSW town post-second world war). I’d recommend it for anyone, I’ve gotten so much from reading it for the first time in primary school, rereading as a teenager and an adult, I missed some subtle things the first few times around.
    Oh and Cloudstreet. I know, I know, we already put Tim Winton up but I only read Cloudstreet for the first time two years ago and just loved it.
    I have to say, I am putting a strike against The Secret River. I think it was a really trite way to deal with the issues presented, a whole bunch of much more interesting issues were completely ignored, and, worst of all, the whole time I was reading it I really felt like I was ‘reading a story’, I just couldn’t lose myself in it, believe in it or enjoy it at all. It has a couple of good bits for me and that’s about it.

  24. I have to say Eucalptus by Murray Bail is one of the most rooted-in-landscape books I have ever read as well as being fabulous. Think adult fairytale. However, complete with fairytale does come troubling portrayals of womenhood, – think passivity, madonna-whore dichotomy, and objectification of women. I second the recommendation for John Marsden, but have to say I loathed Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. And, I know it’s not like literature or anything, but I adore Colleen McCullough’s The Thornbirds.

  25. I’m having a hard time thinking of books that haven’t been mentioned already.
    Now if you wanted films… I could really help you with that!

  26. Yes, I suggested some movies to my friend too, so feel free to suggest movies as well.

  27. ‘The House at Salvation Creek’ and ‘Salvation Creek’ by Susan Duncan have some beautiful descriptions in them. Tim Winton is definitely up there as well. Personally, I tend to connect with the land mostly through my photography.

  28. I just remembered another couple of good Urban books – because a lot of Australian fiction is about the country/bush, but we are the most urbanised nation on earth in reality, and I’m assuming our reader is living in a city. I recently read Melina Marchetta’s “The Piper’s Son”, and it evokes perfectly the city I live in of city terraces and pubs and fluid households. It’s not too teen fiction-y at all, I enjoyed it a lot.
    “Queen Kat, Carmel and St.Jude Get a Life” by Maureen McCarthy is another book which is often recommended for teens but is perfectly readable as an adult, and it deals with kids who grow up in a country town but come to live in the city – a very Australian trajectory.

  29. Another recommendation – and another ‘Bush in Teh Oldentymes’ one – All The Rivers Run. The book is best, but the TV series with Singrid Thornton (sp?) is pretty great too.

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