Literary wizards of Australia and New Zealand
With the Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan announced as this year’s Booker winner, we bring you 10 great novels from Down Under
Sidney Nolan’s portrait of Ned Kelly, the bushranger who was the subject of Peter Carey’s Booker Prize winning novel, The True History of the Kelly Gang (2001)
The Aloe (1930), Katherine Mansfield
Published posthumously by her husband John Middleton Murry, The Aloe is an extended version of Mansfield’s 1918 short story, Prelude. The book opens with Last Moments Before, introducing the reader to the Burnell family as they attempt to move house. Written in the modernist style that Mansfield was known for, the novella deals with issues of feminism, women’s rights and their place within the family.
The Thorn Birds (1977), Colleen McCullough
Set on the fictional sheep station of Drogheda in the Australian outback, McCullough’s bestseller follows generations of the Cleary family and their struggles to keep afloat in a harsh rural climate. At the centre of the story is Meggie Cleary, the only daughter of a big brood, whose illicit relationship with ambitious priest Ralph de Bricassart forms the heart of the book.
The Bone People (1984), Keri Hulme
The pursuit and pain of loving are at the centre of the New Zealand writer’s Booker-winning novel. A troubled child disrupts the hermit Kerewin’s solitude when he shows up at her tower on a stormy night. The story of young Simon and his adoptive father Joe shows the often murky underside to the feelings and shared history that bind a family together. Hulme’s only novel to date, the double meaning of the title draws on the importance of bone in Maori culture.
The Carpathians (1988), Janet Frame
Nene Janet Paterson Clutha wrote across a range of genres, from her acclaimed short stories to her series of autobiographies that included the award-winning An Angel at my Table (1984). The New Zealand author used her writing to document her struggles with mental illness, which included a reprieve from a lobotomy just days before she was scheduled for operation. The Carpathians was the last novel to be published in her lifetime, detailing the journey of a writer’s wife who travels from New York to New Zealand in search of meaning and inspiration.
Praise (1991), Andrew McGahan
McGahan’s award-winning first novel is a semi-autobiographical account of the alcohol- and drug-fuelled meanderings of college dropout Gordon Buchanan. Enticed into the life of the manic heroin addict Cynthia, Gordon’s gritty realist descriptions and understated reactions to the wild exploits he experiences in Brisbane turned this book into a cult bestseller in his native Australia. McGahan followed up with a prequel, 1988, a fictionalised version of his time as a lighthouse worker in the northern territory.
The Riders (1994), Tim Winton
How little we know each other, and sometimes ourselves, is at the heart of Winton’s Booker shortlisted novel, which sees protagonist Scully piece together the mystery of his wife’s desertion. When the family decides to move from Australia to Ireland, Scully goes ahead of his wife Jennifer and six-year-old daughter Billie. But when Billie arrives at the airport in Ireland alone, father and daughter must travel Europe to uncover the reasons behind Jennifer Scully’s disappearance.
Death of a River Guide (1997), Richard Flanagan
Described by the Times Literary Supplement as “one of the most auspicious debuts in Australian writing”, the 2014 Booker winner’s first novel tells the story of everyman Aljaz Cosini, who risks his life to save a stranger. When one of his passengers falls overboard during a tour, river guide Cosini comes to the rescue but gets trapped under a rapid in the wild Franklin River for his efforts. Drowning, he lets the memories of his life and the lives of his ancestors wash through him.
Benang: From the Heart (1999), Kim Scott
Scott was the first indigenous Australian writer to win the Miles Franklin Award for his second novel Benang, which shared the prize with Thea Astley’s Drylands in 2000. Inspired by research into his family and the important historical context of his findings, Benang is a mix of fact and fiction exploring the mistreatment of the Aboriginal people at the hands of white Australia. With its stream of consciousness style and captivating voices, the book has been compared to Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning Beloved. Scott won the Miles Franklin again in 2011 for That Deadman Dance.
The True History of the Kelly Gang (2001), Peter Carey
Carey, who recently criticised the decision to open the Booker prize to American authors, is a double winner of the award for his novels Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and The True History of the Kelly Gang (2001). The latter is a historical novel that offers a fictional retelling of the life of Ned Kelly, the controversial Australian bushranger of Irish descent. Narrated by the character of Kelly as an autobiography, a testament that he wishes to leave behind for his lover and daughter, the novel is split into 13 sections and has a distinctive style based on the dialect of the time.
The Roving Party (2011), Rohan Wilson
Classified as Tasmanian Gothic, Wilson’s debut novel gives a fictionalised account of John Batman and the group of convicts he led through Van Diemen’s Land in 1829, hunting for Aboriginal people. An Australian grazier and entrepreneur, Batman’s pursuit is portrayed by the Tasmanian author as a ruthless quest to massacre an indigenous population. The members of his roving party are spurred on by promises of money, land and freedom.