Books Set in Australia – Five Novels to Read Before You Travel

A trip to Australia is one that offers endless variety — you could spend your time partying in Sydney, you could make an adventurous journey to the Outback, or you could wallow in the many wineries on offer in several Australian states. Australia is a big country and unless you have months to spend there, you are going to have to make some decisions on how best to spend you time. To help you do that, here are some books set in Australia — five novels portraying different aspects of Australian life and history.

‘The Secret River’ by Kate Grenville

A story of Australia’s beginnings, William Thornbill and his wife Sal are sent from London to the fledgling colony of New South Wales in the early 1800’s. After some time in Sydney (very different from the Sydney of today!) they decide to try their luck on some land Will has set his eye on along the Hawkesbury River. The challenges they face from their environment, the local Aborigines and fellow settlers reminds us of how harsh the country was for those who decided to make it their home. There are some magnificent descriptions of the landscape as seen by an outsider, and the books gives a ‘warts and all’ look at the impact of settlement on Australia’s indigenous peoples.

‘A Town Like Alice’ by Neville Shute

While the first part of this novel is set in the Malayan jungle during WWII, what follows is a story that brings you to rugged, country Australia. If you want to know what life was like in a small outback town (more of a hamlet really) in the 1940’s and 50’s then this novel gives you a good idea. You are subject to the harshness of the landscape and the incredible distances involved, as Englishwoman Jean Paget travels to the heart of Australia to find a man she met whilst captured by the Japanese in Malaya. The language and attitudes, particularly in relation to Australia’s Aborigines, are true to their time and should be taken as such. But it gives a good indication of the realities of life in rural Australia, something which is still a strong cultural influence on Australians today.

‘Breath’ by Tim Winton

From the desert to the sea now in this novel by one of Australia’s most respected writers. This novel is set in Australia’s south-west corner, at a time when the area was more of a home for the logging industry than for the tourists and vineyards of today. Set mainly in the 70’s, this is a coming-of-age story about teenager Bruce as he seeks to overcome the boredom of country life with some high risk activities — like surfing off what can be a dangerous and deadly coastline, and developing a dark friendship with an older woman. As Bruce begins to grow up, both emotionally and sexually, we are treated to some of the most poetic and exhilarating descriptions you will ever find of the ‘religion’ that is surfing. And you too, will feel as if you have explored the rugged and beautiful coastline of this part of the country.

‘Bad Debts’ by Peter Temple

Peter Temple is one of Australia’s leading crime writers, and this novel is our introduction to his hero Jack Irish. — an inner-city Melbourne solicitor with a love of Australian Rules Football, gambling, and part time cabinet-making. This is Melbourne in winter, complete with its rain, pubs and shady underworld. Irish has barely been sober for a number of years after one of his dodgy clients murdered his wife, and now Danny, another former client, needs his help. But when Danny is killed, Irish discovers there are plenty of the city’s political elite who would like the past to remain undisturbed, and he is determined to get to the truth. Temple’s novels may not give you ‘sun and sand’, but you will be treated to as much genuine Australian vocabulary and city sub-culture as you can handle.

‘Summerland’ by Malcolm Knox

And finally to Sydney, and a novel that explores the life of the city’s idle rich. Four young Sydneysiders have been friends since they were teenagers, and living around the city’s northern beaches they have the world at their feet. They form two couples and spend every Christmas at Palm Beach, a popular holiday location for the affluent. But despite all this, their friendship is based on lies, as Richard finds out when he learns of the long-running affair between his wife and his best friend. If you’d like an insight into a live of the privileged few in Sydney, then this novel will take you there.

These novels are just a taste of many books set in Australia, but they are well worth reading in the lead-up to your travels or on the plane. Immersing yourself in a novel about the place you are going to will not only give you an insight into the place itself, but it will whet your appetite for your travels ahead, making it far more enjoyable once you get there.

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