Eileen Battersby’s favourite Australian fiction
To mark Australia Day, our Literary Correspondent celebrates her literary wizards of Oz
David Malouf: poet and storyteller, he is one of the world’s finest writers and the surest way to experience his rare art is to simply read all of his elegant, graceful work. Photograph: Michael Stuparyk / Toronto Star via Getty Images
Early in the morning of January 26th, 1788, Captain Arthur Phillips, of the First Fleet and skipper of HMS Supply, rowed into Sydney Cove, Port Jackson. Philips was accompanied by a few dozen officers, ordinary seamen and oarsmen. This landing party, no doubt cheered on by the remainder of the company watching from the deck of the Supply, then raised a flag and took possession of the land in the name of King George III, and colonialism. Also looking on would have been the convicts who had travelled out less in the spirit of adventure than it being marginally better than prison or certain death back in England.
It is an anniversary that must be shrouded in as much ambivalence as when the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock. Yet it was the beginning of something and it is celebrated on this day each year as Australia Day. A little more than 200 years later, Australia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world with a magnificent and diverse landscape, extraordinary wildlife, dazzling botany, one of the most ancient native cultures in the world and more than its fair share of great sporting heroes, visual artists, actors, film-makers, musicians and writers. To be utterly simplistic about it, Australia is amazing. Matilda does indeed waltz and, as the Miles Franklin award shortlist invariably confirms, the world-class literary wizards of Oz, soar:
1. An Imaginary Life (1978) by David Malouf
“It is summer. It is spring. I am immeasurably, unbearably happy. I am three years old. I am sixty. I am six. I am there.” The great Roman poet Ovid is in exile. He recalls his encounter with a wild boy who had been raised by wolves. Initially the poet had been his protector, but circumstances change as do the roles of protector and protected.
Even by the dauntingly high levels of Malouf’s artistry this beautiful tale shimmers with an unearthly radiance. Poet and storyteller, he is one of the world’s finest writers and the surest way to experience his rare art is to simply read all of his elegant, graceful work. Winner of the inaugural International Impac Dublin Literary Award for Remembering Babylon (1993), Malouf looks to Australia and her history as in The Great World (1990). Yet when he returned to the classical world as he did in Ransom (2009) in which he recast an episode from Homer’s Iliad, the result is heart-stopping. The aged Priam arrives to plead with Achilles, not as a king, but as a father, for the return of Hector’s ravaged body. Perfection is too small a word.
2. The Voyage (2012) by Murray Bail
A middle-aged Australian named Frank Delage has invented a piano and to where should he take it? To Europe, of course, and although he has been given contacts in Berlin, he decides to make the complex venture even more difficult and heads for Vienna, a city full of pianos and in which he knows not a soul. He quickly falls in love with an unattainable married woman and his only comfort is her grown daughter. A consummate artist, Bail is an original and in Eucalyptus (1998) he creates a modern fairy tale which is also a love story beautifully acted out under the strong light and sudden shadows of New South Wales. Holland lives with his daughter, Ellen, and over the years he has planted many varieties of gum trees. When Ellen turns 19 her father decides she will marry – and the lucky suitor must be able to identify every species of Eucalypt. Enter Mr Cave, a dull international authority. But on cue, an appealing young stranger appears who has a supply of wonderful stories to tell….
3.Voss (1957) by Patrick White
Interesting the way White appears to have become to many Australian writers much as Yeats is to Irish poets, a towering presence to be ignored. But the unhappy White, the 1973 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, whose work walked a brilliant tightrope between the old and the new, between Europe and Australia, continues to, deservedly, cast a long shadow. Voss and The Tree of Man (1955) are foundation myths while The Vivisector (1970), allegedly based on White’s troubled relationship with artist Sidney Nolan – which White denied – is a black, sophisticated study of the conflicting elements required in the making of an artist. Hurtle Duffield moves from humble beginnings to a Faustian compromise.
White’s first novel, Happy Valley, a panoramic view of Australia set in New South Wales, was published in 1939 when he was only 27. He requested that it should never be republished in his lifetime. This study of small-town life, re-issued in 2012, gives a fascinating insight into the writer White would become.
How to read White? Begin with any one of his novels, Riders in the Chariot (1961) or the tense domestic drama, The Eye of the Storm (1973). Patrick White remains one of the major writers of the 20th century.
4. The Playmaker (1987) by Thomas Keneally
Famous as the author of the 1982 Booker-winning Schindler’s Ark (later filmed as Schindler’s List) Keneally followed it with A Family Madness in 1985 but this fabulous yarn about a group of convicts in a penal colony co-operating with an ambitious lieutenant to stage a production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer is magic. The performance due for June 4th, 1789 to honour King George’s birthday encounters various difficulties. Its director, Lieut Ralph Clarke, is a troubled man with a wife back at home in Devon and he has many doubts. If somehow you have not read Keneally, this is his unsung masterpiece.
5. Dark Places (1994) by Kate Grenville
This is the world as seen through the eyes of Albion Gidley Singer, pillar of the community and hypocrite. “I will begin where I always like to begin, with a fact. Once upon a time, there was a man and his daughter, and all was well.” Except it is not; this is probably one of the most underrated novels one might venture upon. Quietly superb, Grenville in it has written a darkly accomplished prequel to Lilian’s Story (1985) in which brave, bold and tragic Lilian gives her version of the events that brought her to where she is, an eccentric lady who continues to “resist and smile”. Lilian’s Story is also in ways the story of Australia.
6. Like a House on Fire (2012) by Cate Kennedy
Australia’s response to the art of Alice Munro, Cate Kennedy is a singular artist who looks to the ordinary in a small rural community and is particularly astute on exploring the fallout left by the aftermath of the personal disasters that change everything. Her debut collection, Dark Roots (2006) heralded the arrival of a fully-formed master of the form and although her admirers were concerned that she would forsake the purity of the short story to write a novel, The Word Beneath (2009), in which an estranged former hippy father attempts to get to know his daughter by setting off on a trek with her, it is impressive and often funny.
7. Cloudstreet (1991) by Tim Winton
Written over a four-year period from his late 20s into his 30s by Winton at his most exuberant, Cloudstreet is a bravura performance, a young man’s passionate love song to a community and the ways in which it deals with family, change and time. Two families come to share one large haunted house. A loud and loving and lovable yarn, it stands up to a second reading and the students in Australian schools must enjoy having to study it. Even better, though, is Winton’s more recent novel, Eyrie (2013). Sombre and bleak with flashes of black humour, it tells the story of how very badly everything can and does go despite the best intentions. The opening sequence is one of the most authentic accounts of one man’s very messy fall from grace. Tom Keely pays the price for speaking his mind and finds himself in a high-rise apartment, marriage gone, reputation ruined: “His thoughts spluttered on, maudlin, grievous, fitful, lacking proper administration, useless for anything more than goading the pain the vicious light had set off already.” Yes, some mornings are like that…
8.Wanting by Richard Flanagan
It may have been rejected by every literary publisher in London but The Narrow Road to the Deep North is not only a great novel, it is a great Man Booker winner worthy to stand beside the two earlier Australian winners, Schindler’s Ark and Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. But the fascinating thing about Flanagan, author of Gould’s Book of Fish, who is a natural original, is that he could have, should have won with Wanting. Set in Van Diemen’s Land in 1841, it looks to the life of Sir John Franklin and his wife and their adopted daughter, an Aboriginal girl. What will win out – science, Christianity or basic human decency and a respect for an ancient culture? History has an ugly way with the truth. Years pass and Franklin is lost on an expedition seeking the North-West Passage, leaving a widow determined to preserve his legacy. Wanting is magnificent; storytelling as high art. It could be Flanagan’s supreme achievement. Now there’s a thought.
9.Coal Creek (2013) by Alex Miller
Author of Journey to the Stone Country and The Ancestor Game, Miller, who was born in England and on arrival in Australia discovered his true homeland, is one of Australia’s most beloved writers. His most recent novel, Coal Creek, may well be his finest work. It is an astonishing story of love caught up in a savage injustice. Young Bobby Blue, having worked on a cattle station, changes his life when his father dies and takes a job with the new local policeman. Although welcomed into the family and taught to read by their daughter, various tensions have a shocking outcome. Bobby’s bewilderment overwhelms his anger. Miller sustains the voice of an innocent who never loses hope. Above all though, the novel triumphs through the evocation of the bush as an intimidating wonder ready to test all-comers.
10. The Swan Book (2013) by Alexis Wright
Shortlisted with this for the Miles Franklin, an award Alexis Wright has previously won for Carpentaria, The Swan Book returns to the themes of climate change and the destruction of a civilisation. A member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria, Wright has set this multilayered story in the future and in it she examines the realities facing her people. Nominated for this year’s Impac award, it is a strong contender for the shortlist. Wright’s idiosyncratic and unapologetic polemic, filtered through myth, storytelling, humour and a cast of memorable characters, all overseen by black swans that see all and never forget, is far more streetwise than Walg (see below). The energy of Wright’s prose creates an electricity which almost, but not quite, suppresses the outrage which drives the narrative.
11. The Watch Tower (1966) by Elizabeth Harrower
Having retired from her literary career more than 40 years ago, Sydney-born Harrower experienced a long silence. But the republication of this, her finest novel, has changed all of this. Two sisters are abandoned by their mother and then fall under the control of an abusive drunk. Harrower prefers a small canvas and her themes are narrow. Look to the prose, her sharp sudden images and her mastery of a cruel, truth-telling irony.
12. The Spare Room (2008) by Helen Garner
Helen invites her old friend to stay in her spare room, unaware that Nicola is dying of cancer. During the next three weeks Helen learns exactly how much a friendship can entail as she is pushed to the limits. Sharp and funny, at times cruel, Nicola is both hero and monster. She also turns out to be a bit of a muse as this is an extraordinary book, not an easy one but a narrative that matters. Garner is, simply, a gifted writer. She views the world with a surreal clarity. Her most recent work, This House of Grief, an account of a true-life triple murder in which a father killed his sons in a vile revenge, is explored by Garner in an understated masterwork of reportage.
13. A Fraction of the Whole (2008) by Steve Toltz
Martin was always difficult but he meant well. He annoyed everyone, including his son Jasper. But now that Martin is dead it is left to Jasper to figure it all out. This is a story about big dreams and mad schemes, and their disastrous aftermaths. It is very funny and a daunting debut but above all it is a surprisingly moving odyssey in which a son discovers exactly how much he loved his wayward father.
14.Walg (1983) by B Wongar
In this controversial novel, the first of a trilogy, Djumala, pregnant and accompanied only by her dog, Muru, sets off across the bush to her tribal country, her walg or womb. In a bid to learn the tribal secrets of motherhood she hopes to defy the genocide threatening her race. Wongar, born Sreten Bozic in Serbia, then Yugoslavia in 1932, arrived in Australia in the 1950s and immersed himself in the Aboriginal culture. This powerful polemic exposes the destruction inflicted by the white man upon the land through mining and atomic testing. Written in a haunting, poetic prose, one woman’s quest succeeds as both art and political statement.
15.The Tax Inspector (1991) by Peter Carey
Double Booker winner Carey has written several fine novels such as Illywhacker (1985), Oscar and Lucinda (1988), his unexpected homage to Dickens, Jack Maggs (1997), and True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). Carey’s imagination is often overshadowed by his sharp intellect and his grasp of the ways in which things work. He is a magpie, too clever by half. But of all his novels the one that often gets overlooked is The Tax Inspector and it is a shame. It is about the Catchprice family and their motor business and the day the pregnant tax inspector Maria arrives to carry out an audit. Also involved in the action is old Granny Catchprice at war with the family and then there’s Benny, nurturing his ambition. He wants to become an angel…..
16. The Great Fire (2003) by Shirley Hazzard
It could have been as easy to select Hazzard’s 1981 classic The Transit of Venus, but The Great Fire, which took 20 years to write, is worth every minute. Set during the second World War, the action moves between home and Southeast Asia. An officer researching a book meets a desperately ill young man who is being cared for by his young sister. Alder Leith is aware of her age yet is strongly attracted to Helen. War rages and the two people find themselves in an impossible situation. In the hands of most other writers, even gifted ones, this could have floundered into melodrama, but Hazard not only succeeds, she triumphs.
17. My Brilliant Career (1901) by Miles Franklin
Light years ahead of its time, this daring narrative tells the story of 16-year-old Sybylla Melvyn, who feels trapped on her parents’ farm in the Australian outback. She loves the bush but she hates its hardship. She meets rich, appealing and pretty wonderful Harry Beecham who likes her…but it’s too easy for Sybylla – she wants to be a writer and she suspects marriage is another trap. That Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (1879-1954) wrote this colourful and candid novel at 16 is a wonder in itself. It took her five years to get it published, and then in Scotland. She was a heroic character and played her part in a hospital unit during the Great War. Her generosity towards other writers found expression in the Miles Franklin Award, which she established.
18. Sixty Lights (2004) by Gail Jones
In 1860 Lucy and her brother Thomas are orphaned and placed in the care of their uncle. Lucy becomes a photographer and the world becomes for her a series of images. This is a beautiful novel, very moving and unsentimental. Jones evokes a world and with it the life of a singular Victorian woman. Charming and profound, there is a stately intent about this novel which lingers.
19. Inland (1988) by Gerald Murnane
Highly cerebral and challenging, always intriguing, this is an extraordinary performance in which a writer delights in spreading chaos. A loose narrative guaranteed to leave even the cleverest of French writers rending their garments in envy or despair or possibly both, Murnane leaves everyone guessing in a daring metafiction that mixes memory and impression and could cause most aspiring literary experimentalists to pause and think again. An understanding of or should I say affinity with Beckett may help. But then again, it might not. Also useful would be a love of the Hungarian language which Murnane believes is spoken by the angels. Murnane is no easy companion. Inland is a wilful performance piece: a Rubik cube within covers.
20. Ancestors (1989) by Robyn Davidson
Hands up here, I’m cheating. This is not a great Australian novel but for the first 60 pages or so, you might be excused for believing it to be. The opening sequence describing a girlhood spent in the Australian rainforest, in a decaying old house, run by an eccentric aunt with a casual approach to the truth, is well told. There in the rainforest Lucy dreams of a future life in the big city. Once she achieves that, the spell is broken and the novel, and certainly the prose, goes from bad to worse. However, and this is an important however, Davidson wrote Tracks, an account of her 1,700-mile trek across Australia, from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, alone with some camels and her ferocious thoughts. John Curran’s 2013 movie of the same name starring Mia Wasikowska is about a million times better than Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild and new Reese Witherspoon vehicle …. have we space to mention how good Australian cinema is?
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times