Five Aussie novels you should know about

April 22, 2016
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With ANZAC Day just around the corner, it’s a good time to pause and reflect on our national stories. When trying to pinpoint what it means to be Australian, it can be tempting to turn to sentimental images or simple answers. But Australian literature paints a much more complex, diverse and unsettling picture, with novelists exploring what we’re willing to sacrifice in order to belong.

Here are five Aussie novels written throughout the past century that invite us to ask the hard questions about our society.

The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson (1910)

Despite being set in 1890s Australia, The Getting of Wisdom still rings true in showing an individual’s struggle to fit in.  

This coming-of-age novel focuses on the character of Laura Tweedle Rambotham, who leaves the familiarity of her hometown in rural Victoria to attend a prestigious private girls’ school in Melbourne. What follows is a series of misunderstandings and rejections that could rival Mean Girls.

Richardson is scathing about the way institutions seek to squash the individual spirit, but is also ruthless in constructing Laura’s character. Laura is no picnic: she lies, invents fictional romances, cheats in an exam, and takes pleasure in watching other girls suffer. The complexity of her character will keep you reading, as will the novel’s humour. Anyone who has ever felt crushed by conformity will particularly relate.

Prelude to Christopher by Eleanor Dark (1934)

Eleanor Dark’s Prelude to Christopher shows the cruel results of writing off any individual based on their identity or origins. The story focuses on Linda Hendon, a woman who is believed to carry a fatal strain of madness in her biology. In an ironic twist, Linda is married to a doctor who passionately believes in genetic purity. He tries to establish a utopian Australian colony on a distant island and refuses to have any children with Linda, fearing that she will pass mental illness to their children.

The novel follows Linda’s emotional deterioration as a result of Nigel’s treatment, raising the question of whether madness is ultimately a product of nature or nurture. Dark shows how, in attempting to build a “perfect” society, we often exclude and do violence to those on the outside.

The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower (1966)

The Watch Tower focuses on Laura and Clare Vaizey, two sisters living in Sydney in the 1940s. Both women are swept into the power of misogynist Felix Shaw, who marries Laura and terrorises both women.

Harrower creates a sense of claustrophobia, with most of the story taking place within the harbour-side house where the three characters live. Laura’s inability to leave Felix is confronting, and shows how women without money were often trapped in nightmarish domestic situations. In contrast, Clare’s character provides some hope that women may eventually escape their oppressors. This is an unrelenting but extremely powerful book about the cruelties often concealed behind closed doors.

Benang by Kim Scott (1999)

Benang follows an Aboriginal family through several generations, from their first encounter with colonisation, to the government’s attempt to “breed out” Indigenous culture in the 20th Century. It’s a novel with confronting themes, bringing you face-to-face with the effects of cultural genocide on individuals. But it also champions those who survive the repeated attempts to destroy their culture. The experimental style makes this a harder read, but it’s highly rewarding for those who persevere.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (2015)

Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things was awarded the Stella prize only days ago. The plot revolves around a group of women who are abducted and placed in a prison camp policed by a brutal corporation. Wood is interested in the relationship between the women, as they jostle for power and identity within the prison.

The novel resonates with contemporary issues like domestic violence, “slut-shaming”, and detention of refugees. It’s part of a long tradition of Australian novels that refuse to offer simple solutions to the question of national identity, but rather interrogate who we’ll exclude and what we’ll do to belong.

Melinda Cooper

Melinda loves reading on rainy days, drinking cups of tea and making things. She is doing a PhD in English at the University of Sydney. 

Image: Mario Antonio Pena Zapateria, Flickr Creative Commons license