Mark Twain wrote of Australia in More Tramps Abroad, “It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies; and all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises and adventures, the incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.” Twain’s insightful observation could just as easily apply to contemporary Australian fiction. These novels are full of surprises and adventures that will pull the reader into that incongruous and contradictory world that is the land of Oz.
Celebrate Australia Day on January 26 by reading Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (Scribner. 2002. ISBN 9780743234412. pap. $17), part rollicking family saga, part poignant ghost story told in the colorful slang of working-class Australians. The ne’er-do-well Pickles family inherits the dilapidated, unhappily haunted house at Number One Cloud Street in Perth. To make ends meet, they rent half of the house to the industrious, God-fearing Lambs, but sparks immediately fly. The families also have to contend with a sad and angry ghost, one of the “Stolen Generation” of Aboriginal children. With an odd blend of gritty detail and magical realism, Winton writes with such compassion and ferocious joy that you can’t help but love his characters as they squabble, love, and learn to get along over two decades of Australian history.
Single father Holland raises his beautiful daughter Ellen in the rugged rural interior of New South Wales. When Ellen is of marriageable age, Holland challenges her suitors to name every one of the hundreds of species of eucalyptus trees that he has planted on his land. Many men try and fail until Mr. Cave, a eucalypt expert more concerned with the contest than with the prize, joins the challenge. Ellen is resigned to her fate until she meets a strange young man wandering through the trees. His stories captivate her heart. What will Ellen do now? Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus (Picador. 2007. ISBN 9780312427313. pap. $15), a gentle fable about the power of love, will enchant readers.
After Harry slaps the misbehaving child of another couple at a backyard barbecue in suburban Melbourne, family and friends pick sides when the child’s parents take Harry to court. The story swiftly moves forward in eight riveting chapters, each told from the viewpoint of one of the guests who witnessed The Slap (Penguin. 2010. ISBN 9780143117148. pap. $15). In muscular prose, Christos Tsiolkas uses the emotionally charged legal case to draw back the curtain on a fascinating warts-and-all look at contemporary middle-class life in multicultural Australia. Dialog laced with profanities and some explicit sex might make some readers uncomfortable, but for those who seek out blunt, no-holds-barred fiction, this novel will leave them breathless.
In The Secret River (Canongate. 2007. ISBN 9781841959146. pap. $14), Kate Grenville uses her own family history to bring to life Australia’s colonial past. William Thornhill, an impoverished Thames River waterman in 1806 London, is deported to the British colony of New South Wales for a petty theft. Thornhill carves out a life for himself and his family along the wild banks of the Hawkesbury River, slowly moving from indentured convict laborer to landowner. But Thornhill pays a brutal price when he becomes an unwilling participant in the settlers’ violence against the Aborigines. Grenville’s rich detail and sensitive characterizations allow readers to empathize with both Thornhill and the native people caught in a tragic clash of cultures.
Quiet, philosophical Digger Keen enjoys his rural life by the Hawkesbury River. Vic Curran thrives in the cutthroat financial markets of Sydney. But these men are linked by a deep, often uncomfortable bond: their time as prisoners of war in Thailand during World War II. In The Great World (Vintage: Random. ISBN 9780679748366. pap. $17), David Malouf deftly follows their lives back and forth in time from the deprivations of the Depression through Australia’s postwar prosperity, contrasting domestic life with searing flashbacks to the horrors and heroism of the POW camps.
Peter Carey’s richly imaginative Oscar and Lucinda (Vintage: Random. 1997. ISBN 9780679777502. pap. $15.95) may be one of the most offbeat romances that readers will ever encounter. Oscar, a nervous Anglican priest, and Lucinda, a young heiress who impulsively buys a glass factory in a desperate bid to be a businesswoman in a man’s world, meet aboard a ship bound for Sydney and are drawn together by their gambling compulsion. Already misfits in their 19th-century society, the two are shunned after Oscar is defrocked for gambling and rents a room in Lucinda’s cottage. Together they embark on an outrageously insane project: transporting a glass church across the unwelcoming Outback. Carey’s prose is as surprising and unpredictable as the couple’s ultimate gamble.
This column was contributed by Mel McHugh, Head Librarian at South College, Knoxville, TN. She has recently traveled to Australia.