What we read in Australia: Part one

11 April 2020

When we visit a new country we like to ensure we have packed books from and about that country, fiction and non, history and politics, that will help us get under its skin and understand the place better. So before we left for Australia we asked friends what we should read. On those recommendations we loaded the kindle but also, inevitably, picked up a few paperbacks on the way.

We thought we would share them with you so that you too can discover some more about Australia, whether or not you are going to pay it a visit.

Cloudstreet and Dirt Music, Tim Winton

Immediately our friends Anna and Michael recommended Tim Winton, one of Australia’s bestselling authors and known for his vivid descriptions of its people and landscapes. We started with Cloudstreet, the story of the intertwined lives of two working class families, the hapless, chaotic Pickles and the industrious, God-fearing Lambs, who through circumstance find themselves living together in an old Perth mansion. Set over two decades just after World War II, it is a story of everyday survival of everyday Australian folk and is almost too jam packed with beautifully drawn characters. (Don’t give up at the beginning when you can’t remember which of the many kids belong to who, it will be worth it!) At times bleak, at others hilarious, it tackles issues of poverty and disability, alcoholism and gambling, despair and hope, set in a uniquely Australian yet universal context and is written with a very distinct Australian accent. There are moments of wonderful magical realism through the eyes of brain damaged Fish. (Without spoilers, the scene in which Fish and Quick spend the night in a boat looking at the sky is completely mesmorising.) But standing out amongst its cacophony characters, is Cloudstreet itself. It is not only the occupants of this crumbling, noisy house that leap off the page, the house itself lives and breathes.

Greatly enthused by Cloudstreet we moved quickly on to Dirt Music. Whilst it could not quite compete with the the magical of the tale of the Pickles and the Lambs, it was full of Winton’s deeply descriptive prose. An epic tale of yearning and loss set in small town Western Australia. Its protagonists, Georgie Jutland and Luther Fox, both live on the fringes of a community they are not part of, nor want to be. Like Cloudstreet, Dirt Music is often more about the landscape in which it is set than its characters. Luther’s desire to escape and lose himself in the cruel vastness of the Kimberley region is so vividly written that you feel thirsty with him.

Cloudstreet is, however, a more visceral read. Its characters are more likeable, even with all their flaws. If you are going to dip into Tim Winton, we’d start there.

The Secret River and Sarah Thornhill, Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville set out to write a biography of her great, great, great grandfather who came to Australia as a convict and settled on the Hawkesbury river. The confines of fact, however, saw her choose to turn the bones of his story into the fictional account of the life of William Thornhill. The Secret River follows his story from the poverty and crime ridden slums of London to transportation to New South Wales. As interesting as the descriptions of life in the early convict era on the “new” continent are, we found her descriptions of working class life on the streets of London equally rewarding. Think Charles Dickens crossed with Sarah Waters. It is almost a tale of two rivers as Thornhill swaps the Thames for the Hawkesbury.

Once in Australia and reunited with his wife and children it chronicles the moral conflict of a convict turned master and an invader of others’ land. Reflecting the small society of the day it is a novel packed with men, I particularly appreciated the key role given to Thornhill’s wife Sal. She starts as her husband’s convict master and continues to play an equal role in their struggle to make life work in a hostile place whilst their family grows. But this was the book that started us thinking about the early settlers’ relationship with and treatment of the First Australians and made us realise just how brutal and inhuman that was. Without giving anything away, Kate Grenville has described the novel as her sorry to the Aboriginal people.

At the end of The Secret River we couldn’t leave the Thornhills’ story there and moved on to its sequel, the story of Sal and William’s youngest daughter, Sarah Thornhill. Grenville continues to explore the relationship between the settlers and the Aboriginal people in Sarah’s relationship with Jack, the son of a white neighbour and a local Aboriginal woman, and later in her and her family’s relationships with their Aboriginal servants. The horrific secrets of the first book story slowly unravel as she discovers the truth of her father’s actions.

Kate Grenville writes beautifully and honestly about a defining period in Australian life, revealing its realities and its legacies unflinchingly. These books are great stories that will both entertain and inform you.

Talking to my country, Stan Grant

Having read both Kate Grenville’s novels it felt increasingly important to us to read indigenous narratives about life in Australia. We were already getting a sense of the importance of country to the Aboriginal people, a connection not just to a physical place but also to a community deeply rooted in thousands of years of belonging. Stan Grant is a Wiradjuri man, born in the 1960s and raised in an almost white society where he felt a far greater sense of shame than pride in his heritage yet it was that heritage that had given him a deep and innate sense of his place in a country that felt far from his. He went on to be an award winning journalist and political correspondent.

Talking to my country is Grant’s deeply personal reflection on his own experience but a powerful extended essay on the racism and institutional discrimination that still exists in Australian society. Travelling to conflict zones all around the world as a journalist, he found parallels with his own people’s dispossession from their home which led him to the depths of depression. He describes an identity denied, a culture suppressed and, ultimately, a place denied in modern Australia. The book opens with Grant taking his young son to a place, Poison Waterholes Creek, where his ancestors had been murdered to introduce him to the story of his people’s struggle, a story that became all too familiar to us as we travelled through the country. It is a book full of rightful rage and an important read in understanding the true history of Australia, of colonisation and its legacy.

The Opal Desert, Di Morrissey and The Pearl Sister, Lucinda Riley

I love nothing better than finding a book swap and the caravan parks of Australia provided some gems. Somewhere in South Australia between visiting the opal mines of Lightening Ridge and Coober Pedy I found a weighty tome intriguingly titled The Opal Desert. It was the kind of chick lit that I would normally turn my nose up at but set in areas we were travelling through and by now on a reading roll I thought I would take it for the gift it was.

And it was an enjoyable romp through the lives of 19 year old athlete Anna, 40something widow Kerrie and octogenarian Shirley who ultimately, inevitably, become intertwined in a fictional remote Outback community somewhere between Broken Hill and Lightening Ridge. I could probably have done without Anna or Kerrie but I did enjoy Shirley’s story of life in the mines first with her father and then with her Serbian partner, Stefan, mining together for opal in that landscape we could now picture. The solving of the mystery of Stefan’s disappearance after his return to Serbia brought together our explorations of Australia’s opal fields and what our voyages through Albania and Montenegro had taught us about the conflicts of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia.

When I chatted to my Mum about The Opal Desert she told me that she was in the middle of reading and enjoying The Pearl Sister by Lucinda Riley. I thought I might has well give it a go. One of her Seven Sisters series, it is the story of a young woman, CeCe, adopted at birth searching for her roots and discovering the story of her ancestor Kitty McBride who made the journey from Edinburgh to Adelaide in the early days of European settlement. Through Kitty’s journey to become the boss of a pearl business in Broome, CeCe learns the truth about her own Aboriginal heritage and finds her own identity. As historical fiction goes, it’s no Kate Grenville but it’s not bad either.

From that divergence into chick lit we returned to some Australian classics, to the stories of some of the country’s most iconic characters and some of its everyday people…