Read, Kookaburra, Read: On Australian Literature

To mark Australia Day, we asked some of our favorite book people—novelists, booksellers, librarians and critics—to write about the Australian books they love the most, or the ones they find quintessentially Australian, or that they find essential to the Australian canon. Some of their picks will be familiar. Others will surprise you, much as they surprised us. They’ve given us lots to look forward to in our future reading and re-reading.

Alistair Baird
The Paperbark Shoe / Goldie Goldbloom (2009)

Gin Toad is a mad, pregnant albino stuck in the middle of nowhere Western Australia during World War II. As Gin says, “God made the land and man made the cities but the devil made small country towns.” Gin traded marriage over hospitalization in a mental institution, whilst Toad married Gin to deflect small town bigotry and censure. Theirs is not a happy union. The arrival of two Italian prisoners-of-war upends both Gin’s and Toad’s lives and how they see themselves. Nothing can prepare the reader for the utter bleakness of their existence (Goldbloom’s writing summons up images of Russell Drysdale’s near-empty landscapes of drought and desolation). This is an astonishing novel written in prose that is furious, lacerating and quite beautiful. I’ve not read anything like it.

Alistair Baird is the Reader Development Team Leader at the Albert Park branch of the Port Phillip Library Service, Melbourne.

Inez Baranay
The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie / May Gibbs (first tales published 1918)
The Twyborn Affair / Patrick White (1979)

What first comes to mind is The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie by May Gibbs. I suppose it was among the first books I read in my 1950s childhood. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, the “gumnut babies,” are human-like tiny infants who emerge from the blossom of the gum tree. They wear nothing and slide down branches on gum leaf toboggans and find messages written upon gum leaves. Thirty years later, I wore clothes with appliquéd silk gum leaves all over them. This was in the 1970s/’80s era of Sydney artists using Australiana motifs not only in paintings, linocuts, etc., but also wearable art.

All the bush creatures, all the flora and fauna, are part of the Snugglepot and Cuddlepie story; there is a big, kind, wise lizard; there are friends and foes; the bush is full of terror, random danger and help when you need it most. In Australia, even in a suburban childhood, you saw gum trees and lizards and there was always a bit of bushland nearby. I remember the charge of alarm at first seeing actual banksia flowers: they were the Bad Banksia Men, chosen by May Gibbs to personify evil deed and intent.

This book gave me an Australian childhood, among various simultaneous childhoods: at home speaking my first language, Hungarian; reading, inhabiting, fairy tales and fables about goblins, princesses, talking foxes, wishes that come true with unforeseen consequence; then there were prophets in long robes from the Bible. While I’m offering this as my essential Australian book, it’s been a long time since I’ve even seen a copy. I read it countless times as a child and then several times, wholly or in part, in subsequent years, coming across it here and there, connecting with its original enchantment, giving copies as gifts.

And as for a book for adults only: my more mature taste found no more moving Australian writer than Patrick White; his work is essential reading whether for Australian writing or great modern writing. From a few favorite White books, I will nominate The Twyborn Affair. With its cinematic, gender-changing central character—created decades ago—the novel belongs to the present’s preoccupation with slippery considerations about genders and self-re-invention.

Inez Baranay’s most recent books are Local Time: a memoir of cities, friendships and the writing life and a novel set in Berlin, Ghosts Like Us.

Catherine Cole
Jonah / Louis Stone (1911)

I first read Louis Stone’s Jonah when I’d just moved from the western suburbs of Sydney to inner city Surry Hills. This fluid geography played a large part in my enjoyment of the novel. Set in Sydney’s inner suburbs at the end of the nineteenth century, Jonah perfectly captures the hubbub of working class life in Surry Hills and Waterloo. As I read, I found myself comparing Stone to the French and British writers I’d read avidly: Zola, Hugo, Dickens and Gaskell. Here was an Australian equivalent whose characters gave full voice to Australian life in all its colloquial resonance, its class divisions and its racism.

Stone’s book traces the rags to riches story of the larrikin Jonah, described in an early review as “a sort of Napoleon of the gutter,” a hunchback determined to do well in a society in which poverty remained most people’s destiny. A key member of the local “push,” Jonah rises to be master of a shoe emporium in Devonshire Street. Despite his riches, Jonah makes disastrous decisions in both his business affairs and affairs of the heart. His story is juxtaposed with that of Pinky and Chook, the two working class sweethearts who offer a dark story of decline and fall its more optimistic edge. Also present in the narrative are richly drawn characters like Mrs Grimes, Mrs Partridge and Mrs Yabsley, all of whom provide what The Sydney Morning Herald’s 1911 reviewer calls a “distinct individuality.” While the characters are richly portrayed and their dialogue crackles, it was the map of inner Sydney that most drew me to Stone's pages. The novel opens with: 

One side of the street glittered like a brilliant eruption with the light from a row of shops; the other, lined with houses, was almost deserted, for the people, drawn like moths by the glare, crowded and jostled under the lights. It was Saturday night, and Waterloo, by immemorial habit, had flung itself on the shops, bent on plunder.

From Central Station to Paddy’s Markets, described as “a gloomy vault, like the roof of a vast cathedral fallen into decay, its ancient timbers blackened with the smoke and grime of half a century,” the streets of Surry Hills and Waterloo to the Chinese market gardens of Watson’s Bay, a Sydney we’ve lost to gentrification and redevelopment, lives again. Stone’s novel asserts the characters’ relationships with their intimately drawn city—they collude with place and neither would work without the other.

It would be a few more years before I read Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South (1948) and Poor Man’s Orange (1949) or Dorothy Hewett’s Bobbin Up (1959). Both writers inhabit the same geography. By then, my feminism was drawing me to the ways in which women had claimed their place in Sydney’s inner suburbs, but Stone’s Jonah continues to haunt the area around Central Station and Devonshire Street.

Catherine Cole is an Australian author and professor of Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong.

David Francis
The Fine Colour of Rust / Paddy O’Reilly (2012)
The Hanging Garden / Patrick White (2012)

I know I should be saying The Man Who Loved Children or Cloudstreet (both of which I deeply admire and love), but the contemporary Australian novel that always springs to my mind is Paddy O’Reilly’s The Fine Colour of Rust. It is quintessentially Australian, heartbreaking and wryly funny. Set on the edge of struggling town, it explores friendship, motherhood, love and the importance of fighting for stuff that’s important. The narrator, Loretta, is deeply moving. Her acerbic wit belies a deep care of the dusty town in which she finds herself and the characters that inhabit it. She never imagined she’d be stuck with two kids in Gunapan, that she’d have to campaign to save the primary school, or that her closest friend would end up being the old junk man. With no dream lover on a Harley to save the day, no money or influence, or a fully functioning car, she takes on the government—whatever it takes to hold on to the scrappy edge of the world that’s become her home.

O’Reilly’s writing is wonderful; the characters touched me profoundly. A kind of rollicking narrative of life in rural Australia that draws upon familiar terrains, The Colour of Rust might verge on the picaresque if it weren’t so deeply rooted in what it means to be Australian. The prose is in turns as down-to-earth and workaday as the setting; then, without sentiment, it soars poetically, transcending the dust and hardship with unexpected beauty, and then out of nowhere invokes a kind of calf-slapping laughter. I don’t know when I’ve read something so keenly observed, efficient and lyrical that had me laugh out loud so often. Perhaps it’s the quirky world I recognize, from a land I’ve not lived in for more than thirty years, but it’s more than that—I love the pulse of this book, its generosity and the genuine kindness that lies at its heart.

Then there’s Patrick White’s The Hanging Garden, his unfinished manuscript published posthumously, contrary to his wishes. Reading it is a bit like sneaking a look at an elderly friend emerging from the shower. On White’s death in 1990, the manuscript was found shoved in his desk drawer, written in his usual elegant but not easily decipherable long-hand. The completion of this abandoned thirteenth novel, the first third of a proposed triptych, had been eclipsed by his old age and failing health, not to mention his failed effort to ditch the Queen and a theatrical collaboration with Jim Sharman (of The Rocky Horror Picture Show fame). After White died, the pages were stowed on a shelf by Barbara Mobbs, his long-time friend, agent, literary executor and the transcriber of all his hand-written manuscripts. It wasn’t until sixteen years later, and after the death of Manoly Lascaris (White’s partner of almost fifty years), that White’s remaining papers, including the manuscript, were released and sold to the National Library in Canberra. Despite White’s wish that none of his work be published après sa mort, Mobbs finally acquiesced and allowed a verbatim transcription of The Hanging Garden to proceed for publication in 2012 to mark the one hundredth anniversary of White’s birth.

It is the story of Eirene, a girl whose father, a communist sympathizer, had been shot in an Athens prison, and whose mother has just abandoned her in the Antipodes—“Now the future was a shapeless dread in what was a stock-still present.” Still, she finds comfort in a boy who has been billeted in the same house where she has ended up. Gilbert has escaped the London Blitz that killed his mother. As these two derailed lives coalesce in a sultry and halting awkwardness, White’s sensitivities to the vagaries of displacement, as seen through the lens of Eirene’s “Greek-ness,” is ever-present, and his descriptions of the brink of adolescence are as dreamy and fertile as the garden in which his story unfolds. Anyone (like me) who believes that writing is always improved by editing will be humbled and astonished to read The Hanging Garden. This slim and masterful finale to White’s epic literary gift is not only a testament to his skill, the way the novel emerges so startlingly refined in its unedited raw. The Hanging Garden does more than hang together; it is worthy and lovely in the fashion in which it was left. We should be grateful for these pages; they are like a bowl of almost-ripe cherries. It may not quite be Voss, but how often do we get to see a Nobel laureate emerging naked and delight in what we see? I just hope Mr. White would be as pleased.

David Francis is the author of Agapanthus Tango and Stray Dog Winter. He grew up in Victoria, Australia, and now lives in Los Angeles.

Rebecca Hutcheson
Palomino / Elizabeth Jolley (1980)
Drylands / Thea Astley (1999)

I’ve read Palomino twice, and each time I was struck by the quiet, gentle unfolding of the lives of these two women who see each other on a ship and later form an intense friendship. Laura owns a secluded farm and invites the younger Andrea to stay and get herself together. They’re both attempting to escape their pasts.
Jolley does an amazing job describing the rural Australian landscape, the rolling brown and the isolation, as well as showing Laura’s awakening to a completely unexpected love. It’s a joyful little novel.

Thea Astley won the fourth of her Miles Franklin awards (shared with Kim Scott’s Benang) for Drylands, her final novel. Janet has moved to a small town and opened a newsagency. She’s an inside-outsider, someone who has contact with everyone in the sleepy town, but is not of the town.
Drylands is a moving, melancholy portrait of a dying way of life, the kind of small town that may not exist for much longer. You can almost hear the flies buzzing. It’s terrible that this book is out of print. It deserves to be read.

Rebecca Hutcheson is a children’s book expert for Avenue Bookstore, Albert Park, Melbourne.

Jennifer Levasseur
Harland’s Half Acre / David Malouf (1984)
Carpentaria / Alexis Wright (2006)
My Brilliant Career / Miles Franklin (1901)

As an outsider, I’ve attempted to understand Australian culture more deeply through its literature. While I’ve lived alongside Australians, in Australia, for more than a decade, it’s easy to become acclimated to the differences in language and vocabulary and holidays and to forget to consider what it means to be Australian, an often fraught and conflicting question. The scope of history and the importance of the landscape can be lost in the hustle of modern city life.

David Malouf needs no introduction—he’s truly a national, and international, treasure—but he remains one of my trusted guides, particularly his novels Harland’s Half-Acre and The Great World. The Aboriginal novelist Alexis Wright, though, gave me entry into a world and a culture that still feels mysterious and intriguing. Her Carpentaria opened a language and a feeling that’s intrinsic to the national character—to the origins of the continent and its people—regardless of whether it’s acknowledged.

And I’m brought back to the first Australian book I ever read, when I was thirteen and sitting alone, waiting for cars to pull off the highway and onto the oyster-shell road. While I tended my great-uncle’s roadside vegetable stand in rural Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, my battered pink mass-market copy of Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career lit in me the same fire as Little Women had years before. Here was a girl on the other side of the world (and many decades earlier…) feeling a too-familiar longing. She sat with me on that overturned bucket and dreamed with me on those long summer afternoons when I couldn’t have imagined I’d build a life in her country.

Jennifer Levasseur is a Louisiana-bred, Melbourne-based writer and editor. 

Daniel Stephensen
The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie / May Gibbs (first tales published 1918)

Gifted from childhood with the power to ignore reality, I used it to deny the stated fact (book one, paragraph one) that Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, little gumnut children, are foster brothers. I rewrote them in my head as androgynous twins. So away I read, and away they went, Cuddlepie running after Snugglepot, these wide-eyed homunculi cutting out from the family home in the dead of night to travel the world and see a human. How fabulous! I adored any story whose characters would just take off in search of adventure, fearless and without a map.

Even better, I knew Snugglepot and Cuddlepie’s world; it was the world I was growing up in. May Gibbs gave me a bestiary of my backyard: conniving snakes, Mr Lizards, gumnut babies, huge beetles, old kookaburras, possums and, almost most importantly, the wicked Banksia Men, my childhood villains. Almost they were more important than Ragged Blossom, but when she entered the story, oh! I fell in love! I decided she was a wattle blossom girl, her frock and hat the same bright yellow as the wattle flowers in our garden. Ragged Blossom was unkempt, awkward, intelligent, a little melancholy. I adored her. Already I had a fondness for sensitive, disheveled girls with dirty feet, girls who I imagined would stow their shoes in a tree in the morning and set out barefoot into the day. Dirty feet meant adventure, excitement, mischief. I pored over May Gibbs’s fantastical illustrations of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and Ragged Blossom, delighting in their detail, matching the scenes they depicted to scenes in the story. My little heroes were bold, kind, earnest souls, always willing to help strangers, always caring for one another. And even now I can’t see a banksia cone without thinking of the bad Banksia Men!

Melbourne-based Daniel Stephensen writes poems and stories, plays cello and is a regular contributor to Sacred Trespasses.

Luke Terbutt
Voss / Patrick White (1957)

I am staring. I’m staring, now, at the infinite number of stories, poems and novels upon these shelves. Infinite, yes, although at present only one book sticks out. Or, should I say, four distinct versions of it do. And so these four novels of the same novel are facing me, are giving me the eye. One by one, they are asking me to touch them, to take them down, to devour them.

They’ve been doing so for years. Still, I’m not even sure why I’ve collected them: each one in possession of the same words, by the same author. Yet I have made my choice. I’ve chosen the first one that I’d purchased for a dollar at an ex-library sale. The hardcover to the left. The broken one. The one with its bright blue spine, about the color of some improbable sky. The one with VOSS embossed in gold but with the blue still bursting through. As I hold it up to read, I can see the spine has come away from its hinge. The stitching is frayed. It is cracked. But. Never mind. If it falls apart, at least I have another option. Maybe the first edition would hold up better, would feel more alive in the hands. It is prettier, no doubt. Looks sturdier too. Though. No. Do not do that. This will do. Begin. Turn the page.

Weeks pass. (I am a slow reader.) I read in fits and spurts. (This is a book that rewards slow reading.) So I am traveling with Laura Trevelyan (a merchant’s niece) and Johann Ulrich Voss (a German explorer) and a sway of other characters through the Australian landscape of 1845. Through deft sentences I trudge. Through dense swamps of stultifying syntax. Through perfect, opaque and desertlike paragraphs. Through floods and heat, through heat, yes—the page almost melts with it. Through great swathes of language and meaning, dream and reality, pride and guilt, myth—destiny, deceit—treachery and love (it was love, wasn’t it?), until finally, ultimately, I put the book down and recall White’s words:

For a while the man lay there, trying to remember what he had dreamt, but failing. Irritated at first, he then remembered that it is enough to have dreamt. So he continued to lie, and the faded dream was still part of him.

Other musts:

Hunting the Wild Pineapple (stories) by Thea Astley
Red Roses (prose poems) by Ania Walwicz

Luke Terbutt is the proprietor of Alice’s Bookshop in Carlton North. He has been a book addict and bookseller for more than twenty years. His passion for reading and collecting books is often shared with anyone who’ll listen. If you come in, he promises to listen to yours.

Jean-François Vernay
Illywhacker / Peter Carey (1985)

More than two decades ago, when Professor Noël Debeer set Peter Carey’s six-hundred page novel Illywhacker on the Pacific Literature course curriculum at the French University of the Pacific, along with Albert Wendt’s novella, Pouliuli (1977), and an eclectic collection of New Zealand contemporary short stories half the size of Illywhacker, it would never have dawned on me that I could grow fond of Australian novels, let alone that I would instantly fall in love with Carey’s saga. The bulkiness of this magnum opus, which gave Carey’s career an international radiance, would surely put me off before I could even read the opening line.

But out of curiosity, I read the first paragraph, and the first pages, written in Dionysian style, swiftly morphed into engrossing chapters that revealed a fabulist’s fertile and free-flowing imagination whose originality would make Illywhacker my coup de coeur. Beyond the admirable aesthetics of the novel, Carey has the gift of engaging readers’ attention through intellectual stimulation by avoiding well-worn paths.

This picaresque narrative about three generations of Australians told by a self-confessed compulsive liar has truly entranced me through its truculence, whacky plotline and historical fresco. Carey makes this all the more interesting through his underlying bold critique of contemporary Australia, which he depicts as a society of tricks and tricksters.

Through his unreliable narrator’s richly eventful life, Carey spans a century and a half of Australian history: from the 1850s gold rush and the lynching of the Chinese at Lambing Flat, the shearers’ strike in the 1890s, the Great War, the arrival of aviation in Australia with the celebrated Charles Ulm, the Great Depression, the Second World War, right up to a multicultural Australia that Carey perceives as pluriethnic. Like the majority of his novels, Illywhacker culminates in the poetic metaphor of Australia as “the Best Pet Shop in the World,” which, on a societal level, symbolizes the country’s ghettoisation.

Domestication is omnipresent in this epic whose original title—Pets—illustrates the postcolonial condition of Australians who, according to Carey, have “historically...mostly behaved as pets.” After being under British protection, Australians finally turned to the United States in 1941, knowing that they could rely on the Americans for protection, before giving in to the economic conquest of Japan. If the Bacchus Marsh-born author courageously refuses this subjugation, it is because notions of dependency, servility and passivity inherent in domesticity may restrain the creative imaginations of his compatriots.

Jean-François Vernay’s A Brief Take on the Australian Novel will be released in February 2016 by Wakefield Press.

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