I have just returned from two and half weeks visiting friends in Australia, and my head is still spinning from the 15 hour flight (20 if you include the leg from L.A. to New York). So how did I prepare for such a long, long trip?. By bringing lots of books, mostly Australian novels recommended to me by my Aussie friends. For a first time visitor unfamiliar with Australia’s early history, Sydney author Kate Grenville’s The Secret River offered the perfect introduction to the country and its people. Drawing on her own family’s past, Grenville tells the haunting story of William Thornhill, an English bargeman deported with his family in 1806 to New South Wales. Aiming to pull himself up in the world and become a man of property, Thornhill lays claim to100 acres along the Hawkesbury River But he soon discovers that the land is already occupied, and the resulting conflict with its aboriginal inhabitants is tragic and devastating. Grenville further explores this dark theme in her forthcoming The Lieutenant (Canongate, Feb. 2009), a historical novel about the First Fleet of 11 British ships that arrived in Sydney harbor in 1788, marking the beginning of European colonization of the Antipodes..
For my visit to Melbourne, I brought along Kate Veitch’s Without a Backward Glance (published in Australia as Listen), a moving first novel about four siblings still dealing with their mother’s abandonment four decades after she walked out of their suburban Melbourne home on Christmas Eve And because my trip included a stop in Perth in Western Australia, I also took two novels—the rollicking and richly imaginative family saga, Cloudstreet, and Dirt Music—by a local author, the Booker-nominated Tim Winton:. My Perth friends, by the way, kindly drove me around the city, pointing out settings where key scenes from Cloudstreet took place.
I concluded my journey with a remarkable novel about voyaging and homecoming by another Western Australian writer. Inspired by the Sumerian epic poem, Joan London’s Gilgamesh.ranges from rural Australia to London and war-torn Soviet Armenia as it follows 17-year-old Edith Clark and her young son Joe on their quest to find Joe’s Armenian father. (London, by the way, has just released a new novel, The Good Parents, which my Perth friend found very resonant as her own 19- year-old daughter has just left home and moved to Melbourne.) What I discovered in my travels and reading is that Australia is a dynamic, vibrant country with a rich, growing literary tradition.