True History of the Kelly Gang
Peter Carey’s second Booker Prize–winning novel—his first, the idiosyncratic romance Oscar & Lucinda, is another must-read—reanimates the notorious bushranger Ned Kelly, a murderous villain to English colonial authorities and an unlikely folk hero in the country he terrorized (think Jesse James in the outback). Like Kelly’s gang (who donned everything from women’s clothing to homemade plate armor as they robbed their way across 19th-century Victoria), Carey’s first-person outlaw tale is a wild and lyrical patchwork of pathos and ferocity. Whether you sympathize with Ned or breathe a sigh of relief when he’s headed to the gallows, you won’t forget him.
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Long before the Lisbon sisters beguiled their neighbors in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides and Amy Dunne became Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, three boarders at Mrs. Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies separated from their schoolmates on an idyllic Valentine’s Day—and never came back. Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel (which became an unforgettably stylish 1975 film) explores the ripple effect of the girls’ disappearance and lingers on the mysterious forces that might have been at work that day. It does not offer concrete explanations for its shocking events, and its terrifying atmosphere can go toe-to-toe with books published 50 years later.
Looking for Alibrandi
Melina Marchetta’s debut was an overnight success; it was so successful, in fact, that it’s been called the “most stolen library book” in Australia. That’s alright with Marchetta: she began her coming-of-age tale when she was just 17, and the fact that it resonated with an instantly enthusiastic audience gave her the confidence to rewrite her own story and go back to school. The Sydney circles that her heroine navigates are very like the ones she navigated as a teenager. Looking for Alibrandi is still spellbinding more than 25 years later because it’s a love letter with real recipients.
In a Sunburned Country
Australians are fond of saying that its human inhabitants are the friendliest on Earth, and that every other living thing there wants to kill you. Traveler and humorist Bill Bryson offers an enthusiastic outsider’s perspective on that dramatic claim by sharing the wonderful and wild stories of his many visits to the continent, including both cheery locals and, yes, plenty of harrowing details on its more poisonous denizens. In a Sunburned Country will give you an itch to follow in Bryson’s footsteps—just be careful to avoid the stuff that’ll give you a literal itch.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
In his sixth novel, Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan turns his attention to a moment in history that fans of The Bridge Over the River Kwai (and David Lean’s Oscar-winning film adaptation) might think they recognize. During World War II, more than 60,000 Allied soldiers (such as Flanagan’s own father) in Japanese POW camps were forced to build the “death railway” between Thailand and Burma. Flanagan draws on his conversations with his now-late father to create a visceral, sickening portrait of that doomed project, and of how the young men enslaved to it never really came back from the jungle. There is camaraderie here, and even romance, but it won’t leave you whistling.
The Idea of Perfection
When she reaches the insular, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Karakarook (population 1,374), curator Harley Savage trails three failed marriages and medical heart trouble. Engineer Douglas Cheeseman, in turn, comes to Karakarook with the task of demolishing a local bridge and actually making something of his life. Don’t dismiss the tension between them (and the tension that simmers throughout their adopted New South Wales setting) as a frothy comedy of manners; Kate Grenville zeroes in on what one might call the microhumiliations of their interactions with a surgeon’s confident hand. If Nora Ephron had headed for the outback, her reports back to the States might have sounded a bit like this.
The Tin Ticket
Deborah J. Swiss
The titular “tin tickets” of Deborah J. Swiss’s history were stamped with numbers and hung around convicts’ necks before their transportation to Australia in the 18th and 19th century. Those convicts’ crimes were often petty—stealing the equivalent of a day’s wages in England or Ireland could land the offender on a boat—but the consequences were dire, and more than 24,000 women were shipped to Australia, where they faced both menial and sexual exploitation. Swiss celebrates Elizabeth Gurney Fry, a Quaker reformer, and four of the women who pushed past their sentences with her support.
Big Little Lies
If Big Little Lies popped up on your radar via HBO’s star-studded adaptation, you might assume Liane Moriarty’s satirical novel involves women in southern California. Not so: the book is set on a peninsula outside Sydney—Moriarty’s hometown—and (serious spoiler alert) that’s just one of many transformations the story underwent from text to the small screen. That means seasoned viewers still have surprises in store—and that if you love Big Little Lies in the southern hemisphere, you can keep the suspense going with Moriarty’s extended catalog of page-turners.
Birrarung Wilam: A Story from Aboriginal Australia
Aunty Joy Murphy and Andrew Kelly
“Wilam” means “home” in Woiwurrung, the language of Aboriginal Elder Aunty Joy Murphy’s Wurujunderi family. It’s also come to mean home to Andrew Kelly, who became Yarra Riverkeeper after growing up on the banks of Melbourne’s Yarra River. Murphy and Kelly come together with illustrator Lisa Kennedy in a lush and lyrical celebration of the river’s story, replete with fantastic images of its flora and fauna, and Woiwurrung words that celebrate their ancient relationship with the indigenous people who knew them long before European settlers reached Australia. Do you know a kid who bursts into delighted song when they see a new animal? Birrarung Wilam will give them the language and images to do just that.
Russell Crowe missed his Golden Globes win this January because he was home in Australia preparing for the bushfires with his family. His love for his homeland is well-documented: “God bless America. God save the Queen. God defend New Zealand, and thank Christ for Australia.”
That sentiment makes a lot of sense to me. I had the good fortune to trek across the Tasmanian bush earlier this year, and I lost my heart to the generous people and spectacular places I encountered long before a wallaby thumped up on my deck one morning to inspect my coffee. Australia is a wounded country: its people are still reckoning with the genocide and abuses that underpin its history, and disasters wrought by climate change pose an ongoing threat to the land itself. It is also an utterly unique and unforgettable country, and to know it is to feel as Russell Crowe does (a phrase I never expected to type). Thank Christ for Australia.
Featured Image: @cric_ab/Twenty20