FIVE GREAT OUTBACK NOVELS
The words “great novel” can turn some people off.
Why? Because authors sometimes forget their duty is to be telling an entertaining story.
For this reason, we’ve compiled a list of classic Aussie yarns that you can get lost in no matter whether you’re riding shotgun on a corrugated road or lying starfish in a beach hammock.
All of them are great stories, written well, by the folk who’ve shaped modern Australian storytelling.
VICTIM OF THE AURORA
By Tom Keneally
Setting: Australian Antarctic Territory
It’s no surprise us Aussies are as interested in Antarctic explorers as we are in those who discovered our interior.
So when it comes to the definitive Antarctic novel, it should also come as no surprise that it was written by one of our finest novelists, Tom Keneally.
While Keneally might be most famous for writing Shindler’s List, his outback epics The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Flying Hero Class were the ultimate background for him to flesh out the importance of the environment, because in Antarctica – yep, even more so than in the desert – dealing with the natural world is everything.
Keneally depicts Antarctica as a land as foreign to human interaction as Mars or the moon, a land where the mind makes its own reality, which in turn makes it a mighty fine backdrop for an adventure novel.
Victim of the Aurora follows a pre-WWI South Pole trek, and it becomes a whodunnit when a journalist embedded with the team is murdered. Soon after, the party read his diary and realise they’re all potential suspects.
It’s a war where each man is forced to trust his phantom enemy, and where combatants trudge through the slop with tennis racquets strapped to their feet and negotiate crevasses using claw hammers, only to retire together each night to dine on the flesh of diseased sled dogs.
But as Keneally illustrates, the physical ordeal is a doddle compared to what the landscape does to a person’s brain. The sparse daylight hours and the aurora-flecked skies mess with the internal body clock and unleash a minefield of inner trauma – a mental slippery dip into unreality and paranoia.
In fact the gist of the story is that those drawn to the Aurora were off-balance before they got there and were subconsciously looking for a setting to let this animal loose.
The book resonates because nature’s various signs act as lures calling us all to exorcise our demons. Whether it’s in finding an uncrowded spot to pitch your tent, or navigating ice floes with snap-frozen sails, by degrees we are all driven by our inner beast.
By Tim Winton
Setting: The Kimberley, WA.
It took our most famous storyteller seven longs years to get his outback opus down on paper. And then he binned it.
He decided the story was too confusing so he sat down and power-typed a new version in a 55-day rewrite.
And while Dirt Music’s characters might be rejects, unlike Winton’s original seven-year manuscript, he holds them close to his heart so us readers can follow them on a breakneck mission to the Kimberley.
Winton’s eighth novel presents the tight community bonds and conversely the terrifying mob mentality of small town Australia. The story therein is a bizarre series of crises among the townsfolk of White Point that triggers a hunt for fugitive lobster thief, Luther Fox. What follows is a blue-knuckled trek from Lombok to the big smoke of Perth, and finally to redemption in the northwest.
With each chapter, Winton also paints WA’s coastal landscape in an intimacy not captured outside the golden pens of indigenous authors, Archie Weller and Mudrooroo.
It’s an epic narrative that has you hanging on every sentence as though it’s a precipice, and it’s easy to see why everyone from Russell Crowe to Colin Farrell has been connected with its proposed film version.
The novel was feted from NY to London and even shortlisted for a Booker Prize, but if you’re the type to let literary acclaim scare you off, then don’t be because Winton’s writing style is accessible even to those of us who’ve never read anything apart from beer coasters and phone bills.
HIS ILLEGAL SELF,
By Peter Carey
Setting: Blackall Ranges, Q
Peter Carey is a two-time winner of the Booker Prizer, a former ad man, and the son of a Geelong 4WD salesman.
Carey is also famous for creating his early novel Bliss writing from his kitchen table at the Starlight commune in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.
While he might be praised as the best writer in the English language these days, back in the 70s Carey and his commune cohorts were regularly raided during the Bjelke-Petersen era police state.
In 2009, Carey’s old memories of Yandina and Eumundi came back to life as the setting for a gripping new narrative.
His Illegal Self begins in a Queensland cyclone, with a child refugee washed down the swollen Maroochy River in a floating worker’s donger, and never has the reality of teeming Queensland rain – where it can feel like you’re in a submarine every time you leave the house in your car – ever been put to paper so vividly.
What starts off as a story involving a kid and his hippy American mother, soon turns into a deeper web involving the CIA, the Black Panthers and a maze of political intrigue.
The reason the book hits its mark so well is it places you right in the heart of the Australian 1970s hinterland experience. Every second chapter is set in New York, and then returns to this paradise of nude swimming, ice-cream splashing on the vinyl seats of station wagons, canefields, macadamia nuts, and the then unpopulated beaches of the Sunshine Coast and Cooloola.
As the two sides of the world collide, all hell breaks loose, which is terrible for the characters, but tops for the reader.
While Carey’s Ned Kelly diary, The True History of The Kelly Gang might be revered more as his magnum opus, this is an incredible slice of hinterland existence where the environment dictates the movement of the characters.
By David Malouf
Setting: Darling Downs, Q.
For many who grew up in southeast Queensland, the word ‘stifling’ relates to a lot more than humidity.
It has just as much to do with a peculiar ‘Brisbane-ness’, after all, this is a place where people will ask “What school did you go to?” as though it matters. Because it still does there.
This cliquey old-school network was once summed up by local songwriter Ed Keupper as such: “I wouldn’t call Brisbane an innocent city because to me, innocence conjures up something that’s childlike, exploring and loving, but Brisbane’s always been really closed.”
There’s long been an argument that the only decent artwork to come out of southeast Queensland has been done when rebelling against this strange psyche. Enter David Malouf in 1975, with the most stunning debut novel Australia’s seen – the tale of a teen seeking a life beyond limited cultural frontiers.
Malouf’s tale begins as a coming-of-age story but expands into something so much more when lead character Dante’s best mate Johnno lures him away from a banal future: “Give up shadow boxing in the suburbs of limbo and follow me before it’s too late.”
Johnno goes on a rampage; by day taking corporate jobs with the old-school-ties, only to bring these companies “down from the inside’”; and by night, burning down halls and churches all over the Darling Downs.
In some respects it travels on similar tracks to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, it has a similar urgency to revel in life, to create space, and to avoid the treadmill at all costs.
You should be able to find this gem in an old bookstore, whereby you’ll blow the dust off the jacket and read the simple synopsis for a book that “recreates the sleazy, tropical half-city of Brisbane and captures a generation locked in combat with the elusive Australian dream.
THE TREE OF MAN
By Patrick White
Setting: Blue Mountains, NSW
OK, so there might be easier paragraphs to sink your teeth into than those written by Patrick White…
And in recent years his omnipotence as the greatest Aussie writer of the 20th Century has also been questioned…
But if you get the hang of his style, then The Tree of Man could have you pot-rivetted to your beach towel in whichever piece of paradise you happen to be doing nothing in this spring.
The plot follows Stan and Amy Parker, a couple who move to a flooded NSW country town and soon after find an old man hanging from a noose and a disturbed young boy.
From here, the story takes off with (what Patrick White’s biographer Alan Lawson describes as) – “a greater engagement with the land that was, as he so often put it, in his blood.”
The thrust of the novel is the distinctive way Australians cope with their oppressive environment, not only refusing to wilt, but actually blossoming and setting up empires of dirt.
White’s supreme effort with this rural saga played a big part in him winning the Nobel Prize for Literature: “I felt the life was, on the surface, so dreary, ugly, monotonous, there must be a poetry hidden in it to give it a purpose, and so I set out to discover that secret core, and The Tree of Man emerged.”
According to Alan Lawson, the common thread in his writing is, “The painful, challenging relation between the spirit and the body, between the other-world’ and ‘this-world’”.
Yep, it might require a little bit more effort to engage than some of the other books on this reading list, but when you do, mate, you’ll be in deep.
By Craig Silvey
Setting: Goldfields, WA.
“Who the hell is Craig Silvey?” many Australians might have thought when this came out 10 years ago.
“And who does he think he is, writing a book like this?”
Reason being, it’d been a while since someone they’d never heard of had told such a ball-tearer of a country yarn.
All the new stories of this century seemed to be written by old hands until this 20-something sand-groper dropped this hilarious masterpiece.
This is the story of Charlie Bucktin an intelligent kid who, together with town bad-boy Jasper Jones finds a dead teenage girl, but rather than turn his back on the main suspect, Charlie befriends him.
It unfolds as a childhood mystery, a pastiche of To Kill A Mockingbird, in theme as well as storyline. However, it’s wholly original with Silvey re-assembling this particularly-American style of writing and re-appropriating it in a distinctly Australian setting, which works wonders for dialogue and humour.
Jasper Jones is set in a mining town in the 60s and also follows Charlie’s other friend Jeffrey Lu, a Vietnamese migrant.
When Jeffrey has his triumphant day in the sun as the town’s cricket hero, you will get goosebumps, and the way the town turn on him soon after will make your skin crawl.
It’s a helluva Aussie tale, and the teenage characters are full of depth, with each of them carrying a child-like thirst for information that refuses to be smothered by the bitterness of older people.