Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville
A sequel to Grenville’s more famous novel The Secret River, this book explores the tensions of colonial Australia and is a stark reminder of the brutal way white settlers stole the land from its traditional owners. Grenville’s rich, vivid descriptions of landscapes; well-paced and interwoven narratives; and nuanced handling of fraught historical issues are admirable.
In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
The story of a young boy growing up in Libya under Gaddafi while his father conducts revolutionary activities. A fast-paced, gripping read which just happens to be educational at the same time in that it necessarily deals with the recent history of Libya.
The Spare Room by Helen Garner
A woman accommodates and cares for her terminally ill friend while she seeks treatment from an alternative therapy center in Melbourne, despite being unable to understand why her friend insists on pursuing alternative therapies.
All That I Am by Anna Funder
Follows the activities of anti-Hitler activists in pre-WWII Germany in an incisive, cleverly structured and utterly devastating narrative. Hard to put down.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Two women in Afghanistan, thrown together by fate, forge a strong bond while they attempt to survive the harsh brutality of the shared husband and make a way forward.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
In this well known novel, a small town Alabaman lawyer Atticus Finch defends a local black man Tom Robinson who is accused of raping a poor white girl. Through the narrative, Lee provides expert analysis of race and class divisions and difference.
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
A dystopian novel where twelve girls are thrown together in a remote location with two minders and a nurse to supervise them. Here, they do penance for their misdeeds and much is revealed about society’s attitudes towards women.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
A dystopian novel where books are banned and those who attempt to read them must be dealt with accordingly. Illustrates the power of knowledge, and the power of those who control it.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
A dystopian novel in which people are classified based on their genetically programmed intelligence and confined to certain social roles. The world Huxley creates is at once foreign and all-too-familiar, forcing us to think more deeply about the way our own world works.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Partly based on Plath’s own life, The Bell Jar tells the story of Esther Greenwood, a young woman who seems to have life at her feet yet finds herself spiraling into depression. It’s a tough read at times due to the subject matter, particularly when you know that Plath herself died by suicide just a month after the book was first published. However, the novel is also perversely reassuring as Plath puts words to the experience of depression, so often something we feel unable to explain and express.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Most famous in movie form, this classic novel addresses mental illness in an utterly compelling fashion. The most fascinating aspect of it for me is the way it blurs the lines between reality and delusion, such that you’re not sure what’s real. Are the things the narrator describes actually occurring, are they metaphors for the way the hospital ward functions, or are they the delusions comprising the narrator’s own mental illness? We don’t know, that is the book’s genius.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Set in the Republic of Gilead, the novel’s protagonist Offred is a handmaid, a woman whose job is to reproduce in a place where fertility rates are low and boosting population numbers is imperative for Gilead’s survival. If this sounds bizarre, there are many more levels of bizarreness in the book, making the plot utterly compelling.
Transit by Rachel Cusk
My love of this book isn’t so much for its narrative, but rather its prose. Cusk has a way with words such that her descriptions sketch elaborate portraits of her characters, their relationships and the settings involved. Fresh, crisp and insightful prose abounds.
Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion & Anne Buist
From the authors of the famous Rosie books, this is a novel about renewal in all its forms (physical, psychological, emotional), set on the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
My mother cites this as her favourite book and it is indeed a classic. Despite having been written in 1847, the character of Jane Eyre is a fierce, principled, determined young woman with whom I found it very easy to relate. It’s one of those books that, once you start reading, you don’t want to stop, because you want to know what happens next.
Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton
This novel is partially based on the author’s own life, something which is startling when you consider the book’s content. The narrator is a young boy whose has a missing father; a drug-addicted, troubled mother; a heroin-dealing step-father; a notorious criminal as a baby-sitter; and a brother who doesn’t talk, but instead writes his thoughts in the air with his finger. The book is totally compelling and I highly recommend it, so long as you’re not afraid to read a book that contains some fairly graphic violence.
Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko
Through its thoroughly engaging narrative, this novel explores many of the issues Aboriginal people face, including the difficulty of claiming native title, the loss of language and culture due to colonisation, and the complexities of Aboriginal identity. Words from the Bundjalung and Yugambeh languages are mixed into the prose, and the novel has a sharp focus on the land and natural world – the birds, the trees, and the weather all feature quite prominently.
Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko
A much grittier novel than Mullumbimby, Too Much Lip deals with some fairly difficult themes including crime, incarceration, sexual abuse, and so on. The characters are all too real, people who are far from perfect and are just trying to survive. Sadly, the difficulties faced by the characters are similar to those faced by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia. This book provides an important insight into their struggles, all the while highlighting their resilience and strength in the face of adversity.
Ghost River by Tony Birch
This book is set in Melbourne, Collingwood or Abbotsford specifically. The Yarra River plays a prominent role in the novel, almost becoming a character of its own. But it’s the two boys, Ren and Sonny, who give the book its substance. The novel follows their adventures in their thoroughly working-class suburb populated by a suite of interesting characters – crims, corrupt cops, the homeless ‘river men’ and so on. This is a gritty book, well written and well worth a read.
Blood by Tony Birch
This novel is narrated by a thirteen-year-old boy, Jesse, unusually mature for his age because life has forced him to grow up. His mother Gwen is neglectful, and his younger sister Rachel has needed looking after, a job which has fallen to him. Moved around from house to house and city to city, the kids are forced not only to fend for themselves, but to protect themselves from Gwen’s boyfriends, many of highly dubious character.
Home by Larissa Behrendt
This novel starts off late in the twentieth century with a young woman who is visiting the traditional land of her Aboriginal grandmother for the first time, but the majority of the action is set much earlier in the century when her grandmother was a girl. The novel follows the grandmother’s life experiences as she is taken from her family, placed in a home, sent to work for a wealthy white family, marries and has a family of her own. While being a really engaging work of fiction, the novel touches on so many of the injustices Aboriginal people in Australia have faced and continue to face, making it educational at the same time.
Becoming Kirrali Lewis by Jane Harrison
This novel is about a young girl who, when she leaves her home town in rural Victoria to take on a law degree in Melbourne, begins to discover who she really is. Adopted at birth, Kirrali gradually begins to understand her Aboriginal heritage as she connects with her biological parents and meets others who have embarked upon similar journeys. A really heart-warming read that is hard to put down.
Bitin’ Back by Vivienne Cleven
At once funny and deadly serious in its subject matter, this book explores life in a small town for single mother Mavis Dooley and her son Nevil, who wakes up one day and tells his mother he is now Jean Rhys, a woman who wears make-up and dresses. Mavis is mystified, but determined to hide her son’s new identity from the town, resulting in a series of hilarious yet revealing encounters that tell us a lot about issues of identity and belonging.
Purple Threads by Jeanine Leane
This book won the David Unaipon Award in 2010. Like most winners of this award, it was a great book. Based on the author’s experiences as a child, Purple Threads is the story of an Aboriginal childhood in rural Victoria, with all its challenges and triumphs. Identity is a significant theme in the book, as the young protagonist tries to figure out who her father is and therefore who she is.
Dancing Home by Paul Collis
This is yet another winner of the David Unaipon Award (2016). Very different from Purple Threads, this book focuses on the exploits of recently released prisoner Blackie, who is determined to get his revenge on the corrupt cop who sent him to prison, as well as reconnect with his grandmother’s country. These two aims, while they may seem antithetical to one another, are symbolic of the way in which Aboriginal people can become wedged between the white world and its institutions, and the Aboriginal world. This is not a book for the faint-hearted – drugs, swearing and violence abound.
Bloke by Bruce Pascoe
Don’t let the big fish on the front cover put you off. This is a fantastic novel, written by an incredibly versatile and knowledgeable writer in Bruce Pascoe. Most famous for the factual Dark Emu, Pascoe has also written a number of novels and books for younger audiences which I am gradually working my way through. So far, I have loved all of them. The thing I love most about his writing is the way that he weaves nature into his narratives, particularly birds and bird calls.
Bloke is a book about a young man (Jim Bloke), a fisherman and diver who gets caught up in illegal business dealings (not his fault); escapes to La Paz, Bolivia with his girlfriend, the wonderful Giovanna; is extradited to Australia and scapegoated for the illegal operations; finally finds his family thanks to some blokes he meets in prison (he grew up an orphan); and on it goes – I won’t keep listing because it will reveal too much. It’s well worth a read, that’s all I’ll say.
Mazin Grace by Dylan Coleman
While this is classified as a fiction book, the story is based on Coleman’s mother’s life and experiences living on the Koonibba Lutheran Mission in South Australia in the 1940s and 50s. The story is told by a young girl on a quest to figure out who she is, specifically who her father is. Aboriginal English and Kokatha language are woven through the story, giving it a really authentic feel and linguistically reflecting the multi-faceted identity of the narrator who finds herself living between two worlds – the Aboriginal and the white.
Sweet Water… Stolen Land by Philip McLaren
This frontier novel focuses on events in the lives of two families, one black and one white. It is an incredibly powerful account, albeit fictionalised, of how Aboriginal people’s lives are turned upside down by contact with white settlers, as well as being a fascinating exploration of the psychology of white missionaries. This work’s great triumph is in the way it exposes the violence and immorality of white men on the frontier, particularly the missionary and one of its main characters Karl Maresch. It reminded me of Kate Grenville’s historical novels The Secret River, Sarah Thornhill and The Lieutenant, all of which focus on the same time period and themes.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
I’m not someone who reads all the newly released novels, but I am incredibly thankful to have been guided to this one. I finished this book within about 36 hours because it was so intriguing, witty and also heartbreaking. Eleanor Oliphant is a woman who has spent her adult life simply trying to blend in, be normal, and forget her past. She lives a simple, regimented life and is isolated, having no relationship with her colleagues and no friends or family to speak of. This book is about what happens when her simple, regimented life begins to get messed up and she is forced to confront the demons from her past.
The Rosie Project, The Rosie Effect and The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion
The main character of all three books in this series, Don Tillman, is a highly likeable but at times socially and emotionally inept fellow whose journey to find a partner, keep said partner, and parent his son are charted in these three books. There are so many funny moments in each book, and you find yourself rooting for the characters, which means you race through each novel as you just need to know what happens next.
The Place on Dalhousie by Melina Marchetta
To describe this book simply, I would say it’s a love story, but that term does not do justice to this book’s nuance and depth. It is a book about a couple, Rosie and Jimmy, but they are an unconventional pair, and they are surrounded by other characters living out complicated lives. The action centres around the place on Dalhousie – a house Rosie’s father had worked on for decades, which Rosie and her father’s second wife, whom he married less than a year after Rosie’s mother’s death, both claim as rightfully theirs. As I said, it’s complicated.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Author Sally Rooney is only a few years older than me (scary), yet she has now written two wonderful novels, my favourite of which was Normal People. This book follows two main characters from their time at school through their time at university and beyond, illustrating the ways in which our lives can intertwine and collide. I love that her novels do not package things up neatly, but instead explore all the complexities and ambiguities that life brings.