This list of the best Australian books runs the spectrum from wacky history to institutionalized racism to ’80’s wastelands. It has thieves, hunky priests, imaginary schoolmates, POWs and gumshoes. It’s no wonder that there’s such a strong literary culture in Australia.
Melbourne itself is a UNESCO designated City of Literature. Australia hosts several major literary prizes, such as the Stella and the Miles Franklin awards. In addition, this collection of books set in Australia is littered with Booker prize winners and a Pulitzer.
Australia’s quality level of literature and nonfiction works is very high and curating a list of (only) 60 books was no small task. I could have stocked a healthy list simply from classic Australian literature. But as a recovering bookseller and someone who reads across genre, I wanted this list of Australian books to include modern edgy works as well as the classics.
“Nobody has the last word”By Brenda Walker and inscribed into the reading room of the Melbourne City Library
This article is long and while you could read all of these 60 Australian books, perhaps you have a job or some kids to take care of? If so, you can use this handy table of contents to skip to your preferred genres. Or just scroll the whole thing and find some delightful surprises.
Table of Contents
- Classic Australian Literature
- Australian Novels: Family Dramas, Dark Relationships and Betrayal
- Historical Fiction: Long Skirts, Convicts and Gold
- Light Contemporary Fiction: Chick Lit and Dirty Doofy Dudes
- Best Australian Books for Crime Lovers and Thrill Seekers
- Speculative Books Set in Australia: Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Dystopia
- Books Featuring Aboriginal Culture and History
- Novels Set in the Australian Outback
- Non-Fiction Australian History Books
- Memoirs: Refugees, Outcasts and Racism
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Classic Australian Literature
No list of the best Australian books would be complete without exploring the country’s literary canon. These classic Australian books hold up and will give you a strong sense of Australia’s history and cultural anthropology.
The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, Henry Handel Richardson
While initially content with his wife Mary, Richard Mahony ultimately becomes restless. He goes from the gold fields in Ballarat, to the rest of Australia and abroad, shattering their security and ultimately plunging them into poverty. Richardson (who was a women, writing with a male nom de plume) captured Richard’s endless searching with “…the inevitability of a Greek tragedy”.
Seven Little Australians, Ethel Sybil Turner
Modern for its time, this children’s classic written in 1894, features a strict Army Captain, his second wife and their seven children. Captain Woolcot’s attempts at discipline fail completely and the kids run amok.
“None of the seven is really good, for the excellent reason that Australian children never are.”
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Picnic at Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay
“Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three of the girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of Hanging Rock. Further, higher, till at last they disappeared….” Mysterious and timeless.
The Harp in the South, Ruth Park
This Australian classic, captures the essence of Sydney’s hard life as lived by the Darcy family in the mid 1900’s. Despite their hardscrabble existence among the grog shops, brothels and boarding houses, they managed to find a lot of love amongst the mess and slum in Surry Hills.
Voss, Patrick White
“In 1973, Australian writer Patrick White was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature ‘for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature.’ Set in nineteenth-century Australia, Voss is White’s best-known book, a sweeping novel about a secret passion between the explorer Voss and the young orphan Laura.”
Australian Novels: Family Dramas, Dark Relationships and Coming of Age
Some of the best Australian novels feature families, but that doesn’t mean that they are happy or prosperous. These novels are stuffed full of difficult family relationships, hardship, addiction and coming of age (the hard way).
Cloudstreet, Tim Winton
This novel follows the religious, industrious Lamb family and the boozing fractious Pickleses family. “Hailed as a classic, Tim Winton’s masterful family saga is both a paean to working-class Australians and an unflinching examination of the human heart’s capacity for sorrow, joy, and endless gradations in between.”
“Life was something you didn’t argue with, because when it came down to it, whether you barracked for God or nothing at all, life was all there was. And death.”– Tim Windon, Cloudstreet
A Long Way from Home, Peter Carey
I’ve been slowly and steadily working my way through Carey’s canon, but there’s nothing slow or steady about this book. Irene Bobs, her husband Titch and their quiz-show failure of a neighbor Willy, take off on a madcap car race circumnavigating Australia. As they race around the continent, you get glimpses into the maddening nature of Irene and Titch’s marriage and witness Willy’s jump start into a new life. Carey propels you out the gate with his opening line:
“For a girl to defeat one father is a challenge, but there were two standing between me and what I wanted, which was—not to fiddle-faddle– a lovely little fellow named Titch Bobs.Irene Bobs
Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko
Pop is dying and and Kerry is on the run with a stolen Harley. She reluctantly heads to the family homestead to hide out. Between her alcoholic brother, disapproving mother and reclusive nephew, it just might fall upon Kerry to hold the family together while a big secret threatens to explode all over them. Shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award in 2019.
The Place on Dalhousie, Melina Marchetta
Rosie Gennaro meets Jimmie after walking away from Sydney and the house her father built on Dalhousie. She returns to Dalhousie, pregnant and short on options to share the home with her reluctant step-mother. Other popular books by Marchetta include Saving Francesca (a precursor to Dalhousie) and Looking for Alibrandi (a coming of age tale).
Guilt is a burden. So forgive yourself for the mistakes”– Melina Marchetta
The The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton
“A tale that begins in England and travels across the many miles to Australia, comes home again to England to undo over a hundred years of secrets”. When Cassandra’s grandmother Nell dies, she inherits a book of dark and intriguing fairy tales and a mysterious family tale that sends her searching for her grandmother’s history.
The Sisters’ Song, Louise Allan
This book delivers a strong emotional pull as you follow Ida and Nora, two sisters living in Tasmania. When their father dies, they move in with their grandmother where Nora’s musical talent is encouraged and Ida takes on a career as a nanny. Their lives fork as they enter adulthood but they reconnect when Nora’s life and dreams have fallen into a heap.
A Light Between Oceans, M.L. Stedman
This book is an “… incredibly moving novel about what happens when good people make bad decisions. The story takes place in the town of Point Partageuse, Australia during the 1920s. The story begins when a lighthouse keeper and his wife find a life boat containing a live baby (and dead man) on the shore of their isolated island. Through a mixture of misplaced intentions and unsupported superstition they decide to raise the child as their own — deciding not to inform the authorities of the child’s existence”. The decision has tragic consequences.
The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas
You probably aren’t going to like the characters in The Slap, but Tsiolkas’ take on how we fail to see our own petty and cruel natures will definitely give you food for thought. One slap at a suburban barbecue sets off a sequence of tense events, presented by the author with an unflinching eye.
A Fraction of the Whole, Steve Tolz
Along a similar vein as A Confederacy of Dunces, this Australian novel also features odd protagonists offering meditations on the absurdity of modern life. In Fraction, Jasper Dean reflects upon a life with his crackpot, certifiably paranoid father. Martin drags his son through a series of wacky schemes and unexpected twists from Australia to Paris to Thailand.
“…she gave me a look that deftly combined tenderness with revulsion. To this day, the memory of that look still visits me like a Jehovah’s Witness: uninvited and tireless”–Steve Tolz
Candy, Luke Davies
Candy is a love story, a horror story and an adventure. Our narrator falls in love with Candy, a beautiful aspiring actress. They introduce a third wheel into their relationship, heroin. While they remain in love, but their lives perform a slowly burning downward spiral as they get more and more out of control. “A beautifully written train wreck.”
Praise, Andrew McGahan
In Brisbane in the ’90s, it was easier to be on the dole than get a job, and heroin was better known than ecstasy. Praise is not your basic love story between two rebellious teenagers, but rather, it’s about their feeling of uncertainty and depression about the future. “… a seminal piece of Australian grunge fiction.”
Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton
I hesitated including yet another 80’s/90’s book featuring crooked family members and heroin. What on earth was going on in Australia during that time? However, it’s worth meeting our Eli as he struggles to follow his heart and learns how to do what it takes to become a good man.
“…hugging Dad back feels like the good thing to do and my hope is to grow into a good man, so I do it.”–Eli Bell
Historical Fiction: Long Skirts, Convicts and Gold
These books on Australian history cover the goldfields to convict life to the horrors of WWII.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan
“The novel is about…life, death, despair, loneliness, love, connection, redemption, poetry. It’s a grim work, centered on the experiences of the Australian prisoners of war who were used as slave labor in the construction of the Thailand-Burma railway during World War II”. The protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, is haunted by a love affair with this uncle’s wife and he battles to save the lives of his fellow POWs. This is yet another Booker prize winner by the author of The Sound of One Hand Clapping and Gould’s Book of Fish.
The Secret River, Kate Grenville
In 1806, Thomas Thornhill, an illiterate Englishman steals a load of wood and for punishment, he and his wife are deported to Australia. He realizes that, in order to make a life for his family, he must forcibly take the land from the people who came before him. “A haunting, captivating, atmospheric, well-written saga of two worlds colliding in an uncompromising wilderness around the Hawkerville river near Perth, Australia.” Grenville won the Commonwealth prize for this book and she is also the author of The Lieutenant.
True Story of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey
Follow Ned Kelly’s wild ride around Victoria Australia as he robs banks and steals the hearts of his fellow countrymen. Carey tells the story from Kelly’s own point of view and it’s stuffed full of the colorful characters and colloquialisms. Carey is my favorite Australian author and he’s a genius at propelling the stories from the very first line.
“I lost my own father at 12 yr of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word of what I write but this history is for you and will contain no lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.”— Ned Kelley
Preservation, Jock Serong
In 1797 a fishing boat picks up three shipwrecked survivors on a beach, all of whom are injured and distressed. They’ve walked for hundreds of miles, losing fourteen companions along the way. Lieutenant Joshua Grayling is tasked with investigating what happened but as he digs through their evasive story he uncovers a far more harrowing account than originally thought.
The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough
This sweeping epic follows three generations of the Cleary family as they live their lives on a sheep station in Drogheda. The central characters are Meggie (the only Cleary daughter) and her handsome ambitious priest, Ralph de Bricassart. It’s a sprawling soap opera in a hauntingly beautiful setting.