Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 26, 2011

The ANZ LitLovers List of Best Australian Books

Sue at Whispering Gums has been exploring the idea of an Australian Canon, and inspired by that, and the occasional requests I get for a suggested reading list, I thought that on Australia Day today, I might offer my readers a selection of must-read Aussie titles that encapsulate our national character. No doubt there will be some of my readers who object to a non-academic ‘import’ like me having the temerity to define that, but Australia’s an egalitarian country so I reckon I can.

Australia is an immigrant country and our nation has a welcoming Aboriginal heart. It’s cheeky of me to suggest a book I haven’t quite finished reading, but Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance is top of my list for depicting First Contact at its most generous; the book is playful and wise.  Kate Grenville’s The Secret River shows how the virgin bush captivated convicts and early settlers and how the lure of owning a piece of that landscape was an irreversible moment in a land where communal ownership had reigned for forty thousand years or more.  For a look at Australia in the 19th century Gold Rush Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney is essential reading and For the Term of His Natural Life (Popular Penguins) by Marcus Clarke is a dramatic exploration of the convict era.

Our cities are modern, tolerant and multicultural; our rugged outback communities nurture idiosyncratic individuals and a laid-back sense of solidarity. Thea Astley loved her country but in Drylands (which won the 2000 Miles Franklin Award) she was acerbic about its faults: insularity, complacency, anti-intellectualism and a blokeyness that excludes women. Steven Carroll in The Art of the Engine Driver shows us how that blokeyness constrains relationships in suburbs that isolate families in a sea of brick-veneer.

No matter how sophisticated, capable, or attuned to our landscape we may think ourselves, our inhospitable climate and ancient outback demand our respect.  Writers who’ve reminded us of that inescapable fact include Richard Flanagan in Death of a River Guide and Cate Kennedy in The World Beneath.

There are plenty of writers who have explored what life is like for the Other in Australian society. Without whingeing, Deborah Forster in The Book of Emmett recalls a childhood with an abusive father while Ruth Park in the 1977 Miles Franklin winning Swords and Crowns and Rings* showed us that physical disability is no barrier to love, courage and integrity.  Olga Masters showed the optimism and ambition of one of Sydney’s single mothers in Amy’s Children* while Martin Boyd’s The Cardboard Crown showed poverty of a different kind in an upper-class family so unable to resolve its identity that it became hollow at its core. Shirley Hazzard won the National Book Award and the Miles Franklin in 2004 with The Great Fire which explores the claustrophobia of the Other within a family, and so does Susan Johnson in the black humour of Life in Seven Mistakes: A Novel

In recent years there has been in my opinion an over-emphasis on Australia’s military history at the expense of other more inclusive histories. (You can’t be a ‘real’ Aussie unless you have an ANZAC in your family: an oblique way of excluding immigrants especially those from outside the Commonwealth, i.e. Asia and the Middle East.)  Nevertheless, the loss of so many of our young men in WW1 was catastrophic for our young nation and one of two Miles Franklin winners by George JohnsonMy Brother Jack captures the impact of two World Wars. In Ransom David Malouf shows us the human cost of war as never before, essential reading in the 21st century.

Which brings me to the Grand Old Man of Australian literature, our only Nobel Prize winning author Patrick White. Authors win the Nobel because everything they write is wonderful so it’s a nonsense to choose any particular novel by White, but I’m selecting Voss  (the inaugural Miles Franklin Award winner in 1957) because it is a perfect match with the wildly eccentric Glissando – A Melodrama, a sort of riff on Voss ably created by debut author David Musgrave. Glissando is a most entertaining example of the Aussie sense of humour: laconic, quirky, cheeky, qualities which Peter Carey also captured in Oscar and Lucinda which won both the Booker Prize and the Miles Franklin Awards in 1989.

In a little category all by himself is Gerald Murnane, a writer not for everybody because his books are not straightforward. But I lost myself in Inland , a work both sweeping and claustrophobic. Much like the experience of living in this country, I would say…

So this is it, my very own little canon of OzLit. Let the arguments begin!

©Lisa Hill

  1. Drylands by Thea Astley
  2. The Cardboard Crown by Martin Boyd.
  3. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey.
  4. The Art of the Engine Driver by Steven Carroll.
  5. For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke, see my review and Lurline Stuart’s guest review.
  6. Death of a River Guide by Richard Flanagan, see my review.
  7. The Book of Emmett by Deborah Forster, see my review.
  8. The Secret River by Kate Grenville.
  9. The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard.
  10. My Brother Jack by George Johnson.
  11. The World Beneath by Cate Kennedy, see my review.
  12. Ransom by David Malouf, see my review.
  13. Amy’s Children* by Olga Masters, see my review.
  14. Inland by Gerald Murnane, see my review.
  15. Glissando by David Musgrave, see my review.
  16. Life in Seven Mistakes by Susan Johnson, see my review.
  17. Swords and Crowns and Rings* by Ruth Park, see my review.
  18. The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney by Henry Handel Richardson
  19. That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott, my review is here now.
  20. Voss by Patrick White, see my review.

* These asterisked books are out-of-print.  They shouldn’t be.  Hunt around for 2nd-hand or library copies and nag publishers to make them available Print-on-Demand.


  1. A good selection but you forgot Cloudstreet by Tim Winton.

    • No, Meg, I didn’t forget… I *knew* someone would tackle me over Tim Winton. Helen Garner’s fans will wonder where she is too…

  2. Pleased you like Deadmans Dance Lisa. I nominated that for our discussion list last year but it missed. I bought it anyway and am now pleased I did as detect from hints that your review is going to be positive. One to look forward to and I agree re inclusion of Ruth Park and Susan Johnson. I probably would have included Tim Winton and Helen Garner too. The only one I strongly disgareed with is Drylands. Coming from a remote area myself I hated her depiction of rural Australia I remember.

    • Yes, I remember that there was spirited discussion about Drylands!
      Re That Deadman’s Dance, maybe it will win the MF and then it will be on our schedule anyway?

  3. Great list Lisa … I wasn’t surprised by the absence of Winton and Garner! I would though want, I think, to have Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria in there, and I would probably choose Fly away Peter over Ransom … though most Maloufs would be good. I would also, I think, want to represent the great flowering of Aussie writing in the 1920s-40s – Coonardoo, A house is built, or one by Kylie Tennant – BUT really, when you have to keep to 20, your list is as good as any!!

    • Thank *you* for the inspiration, Sue, this is something I should have done a long time ago.
      I would have had Carpentaria there if I were not so enamoured of That Deadman’s Dance, and yes, I dithered a good while over which Malouf to choose. I really like Johnno too, and Remembering Babylon as well as Fly Away Peter.
      I’ve read Ride on Stranger but not Coonardoo yet – I found a copy of it late last year and hope to get to it this year. But I’m mindful of recommending things that are difficult to get, I had to leave two out-of-print titles on the list because I felt they were important, but really, I want readers, especially international ones, to be able to find these and try them. Availability is a limiting factor, though who knows, maybe eBooks are the solution in the not-too-distant future?
      Why 20? It seemed like a manageable selection, but of course there were many good things I had to leave out.

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Meg Merrylees, Lisa Hill. Lisa Hill said: On Australia Day – The ANZ LitLovers List of Best Australian Books « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog […]

  5. I love the topic Lisa (and Sue!). It’s a fine list. Great to see Glissando on there. I might have gone for Gould’s Book of Fish by (Richard!!) Flanagan, but I loved Death of River Guide too, a tough choice. And no Winton! Ah well. I’m about to give Cloudstreet to a recent, American-born immigrant as one of the essential Australian novels – perhaps I should reconsider?! Finally, and I always seem to being saying this, I loved Peter Carey’s Illywhacker, it’s a personal favourite. I think it perfectly sums up the larrikin Aussie story-teller in all of us.

    Am looking forward to reading ‘That Deadman Dance’ – and your review of it too!

  6. *gulp* Martin/Richard – how could I?? I’ve fixed it (*blush*), thanks John.
    I *loved* Gould’s Book of Fish, but not everyone did. Remember how Peter Craven savaged it in his review? (See I don’t think I let his opinion influence me, but I think River Guide is more accessible for someone coming new to Flanagan, and I wanted a book that represented the peril of the Aussie bush too.
    I hope I can do justice to That Deadman Dance, it’s such a great book!

  7. That’s an interesting article on Craven. I was living in London when Gould’s came out so I missed all the fuss!

    • LOL I’ve been known to write the occasional unkind review myself, not to mention having egg on my face over last year’s Miles Franklin prediction, but Craven must have rued his words when the book went on and won all those prizes.

  8. A fascinating post which I suspect took you sometime to compile – especially the wall of book covers. There is much here I know little of. Alas, I need more years that I have left to cover all those among my other reads

    • The wall of bookcovers is easy – you’re with WordPress same as I am: all you need to do is find an online bookseller that sells all the books you’re interested in and download the covers (so that they’re all the same size). (I do this for all my posts and keep the covers nicely named in a dedicated folder so I had nearly all of these already). Then upload them from your computer using the insert graphic button but don’t insert them into your post, they’ll all go straight into your gallery.
      Then, when you’ve got all the ones you want (which doesn’t take long) – go to the gallery and scroll down to the bottom. Choose how many would fit across your page and then insert the gallery. Voila!
      PS I’m going to ignore your comment about not having enough years left, you’re only a spring chicken so far, Tom! If you read 4 per year for 5 years then you’ll be begging me to come up with another list! And I’ll happily do it for you too *big smile*

  9. What a great round up of Australian classics. There are many on the list that I haven’t heard and am now intrigued by. For some reason, I also love the fact that you used temerity and reckon in the same sentence!

    • Well, Mae, I hope you try a couple and we get to read your review on your blog:)

  10. An excellent project for Australia Day — and an archived item that I am sure I will be returning to in the future. Thanks.

    • Thanks, Kevin! I’ve put a link to this post on the ANZLL Books You Must Read page for easy reference if you are looking for it at some time in the future.

  11. I’m a bit surprised at The World Beneath’s inclusion. I really wanted to love that book, but really, really didn’t! I would have picked Dirt Music as a favourite. That spoke to me about the dysfunctionality of Australian relationships much more strongly than the world beneath, where I failed to identify with any of the characters and found their situation far less believable than the situations carved out by Winton. But, this is all subjective, and it’s your list! Good food for thought and a great topic to generate discussion.

    • Thanks, Lily! I think you’ve nailed the reason why Winton’s books don’t move me: I can’t identify with any of his characters whereas I know people just like the ones in The World Beneath. I also think Cate Kennedy represents a younger voice in Australian fiction, and I wanted to have a mix of well-established writers and some new ones, and while I didn’t even think about gender balance when making my choices, I’m pleased to see that I have arrived at a good mix.

      • Now this is interesting because identification is not a big thing for me although I definitely enjoy that too. Reading about people who are way different and yet finding something universal in their experience is something I thoroughly enjoy (if the writing is good, of course). Hence, for example, Tim Winton’s Breath – the characters are far removed from my experience and circle, but the concerns/issues such as the urge to risk-take and to not be ordinary were real (to me).

        • I agree, I don’t think identification is crucial for me either…but if the characters are beyond my experience, they have to interest me in some way. For example, I don’t identify with North Shore types getting tattooed in middle-age LOL as in Fiona McGregor’s Indelible Ink, but I was fascinated by the book nonetheless! Hers was a kind of risk-taking that was interesting…

  12. I felt a little bit happy when Winton wasn’t mentioned – I think he’s a bit overrated to be honest. That is a great list.

    I can only add that I think Richard Flanagan is a great Australian author that often doesn’t get the attention he deserves. I think my favourite Flanagan book is Gould’s Book of Fish.

    Great list.

    • Hi Becky – I agree about Flanagan – always doing something different and interesting. I’d love to know what he’s working on now…

  13. Superb list, Lisa. I’ve read quite a few on it, others are already on my TBR and the rest I obviously need to get a hold of.

    Glad to see Flanagan on there; he’s one of my favourite authors. Alas, Death of a River Guide is the only one of his I haven’t read. (My favourite is The Sound of One Hand Clapping, which is a wonderful look at the immigrant experience, warts and all).

    How about Murray Ball’s Eucalyptus? It’s such an evocative love letter, if you will, to the trees of this nation! ;-)

    And D’arcy Niland’s The Shiralee would be a worthy inclusion, because it depicts a way of life that no longer exists.

    And for a non-historical novel, why not add Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity ? :-)

    • Hah! You want me to make it 25, Kim! I hovered over both Niland and Perlman and Bail (though I’d have chosen The Pages), I really did, and I wanted to add Alex Miller and Elizabeth Jolley and Joan London and Sarah Myles’ Transplanted and Amy Witting and …. and…. and that’s 28 not 25 so then I’d need to make it a nice round 30 and I could add Randolph Stow and Charlotte Wood and …. where does it end?
      Nope, I know you’ve already got your own list on Reading Matters, but you’ll just have to make another one *grin*.
      (In the meantime, don’t forget there’s also a lovely long list of OzBooks here on the ANZLL Books You Must Read page, and HG & TW are on that one LOL).

  14. I’ve read three of these, the Carey, White and Mahlouf, was reading Clarke till e reader packed up. No Xavier Herbert Lisa? Poor Fellow My Country is surely a true classic, all the best Stu

    • Oh dear, Stu, you are right, Xavier Herbert is a must-read, though I’ve only read his magnificent Capricornia myself. But what could I take out, to put it in?? And where to get it? Capricornia seems readily available ( but I can’t find Poor Fellow My Country anywhere. Did you review it on your blog when you read it?

  15. Wonderful. I’ve been thinking of putting together a list of Australian books to read. This is quite timely and I like how you’ve explained and justified the inclusion of each book on the list. I loved reading the post. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Kinna – I enjoyed your EOY list and the ones I ordered have just come in the mail! Isn’t it wonderful to be able to explore each other’s cultures like this, through books shared on the Web? I love it!

  16. Shame – I’ve only read three of them.

  17. Thanks for this list. It highlights just how bad I am at reading Australian books. I’ve just got back from the library with Swords and Crowns and Rings as well as The World Beneath. Can’t wait for Christmas holidays. I hope you don’t mind, but I have stolen your list and put it on Goodreads (with credit) to remind me when I go to the library.

    • Hello KImberley, delighted to see how keen you are on OzLit.
      But please amend the list name on GR, Whispering Gums is a different Australian litblog run by a dear friend of mine:)
      This list, on this page, is the ANZ LitLovers List of Best Australian Books.

  18. I see that you don’t consider Cloudstreet to be as good as any of these, but I wanted to ask, for someone who loved Cloudstreet and is looking for another good Aussie novel, which of these would you recommend?

    • *chuckle* That’s a difficult question, Kylie, because (i think) you’re asking me to suggest something that has a similar appeal to Cloudstreet. But what is it about Cloudstreeet that made you like it so much, I wonder? It’s more than 20 years since I read it, and it was not, for me, a memorable book, so I can’t explain adequately why I didn’t care for it, and I can’t remember enough about it to guess why you liked it so much.
      Anyway, whenever I am asked to suggest just one Aussie book, I always suggest My Brother Jack by George Johnson. I’ve read it three times and I always love it.

      • Thanks for getting back to me! I loved Cloudstreet initially because it’s set in the place where I live. It was my first time to read a book where every street (and riverbank) was familiar to me. It was the place I live in, except 50 years ago. That was very cool to me, as I’ve studied the local history of this place. But entirely apart from that, I loved the characters, the human flawedness of them. The relationships within and between the couples. I loved the surrealism, the tiny touches of magic in an otherwise realistic book. The magic seemed to be organic to the Australian landscape and the Swan river. It fitted well. I have to say, it took me 3-4 chapters to get into the book, but once I was totally in, the rest of the book flew by and I was sad to leave it behind when it finished.

        • But I will look up My Brother Jack, thank you!

          • Ooh, having looked at a couple of your reviews, I think “Life in Seven Mistakes” may have some of those wonderful cloudstreet elements- dysfunctional Australian family and all that. :)

            • Hello again, Kylie – Life in Seven Mistakes is a *delicious* book, and it may well also appeal because even if we don’t live on the Gold Coast it has that familiarity of ‘home’ that adds extra pleasure in reading books about our own part of the world. I think that my familiarity with the setting of My Brother Jack is also one of the reasons I like it: I used to live in that patch and have been a frequent visitor to the hospital that features in the book.

              But I must compliment you on your passionate defence of Cloudstreet *warm smile*. In one short comment you have repudiated my reservations about it and no doubt anyone following this conversation has placed an order for it on your recommendation! That is what I love about this page, the way readers challenge my choices and add to the list, all to the benefit of Aussie authors and the books they write.

  19. Thanks a lot for the recommendations, Lisa. I loved them! I have ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ and ‘The Great Fire’ on my bookshelf. I think I will start with them. Then I will come back and explore the other works that you have mentioned. This is such a wonderful resource!

  20. […] is a GAN, but in checking out ANZ litlovers’ Best Australian Books and Whispering Gums’ Australian Canon I was surprised that neither included the wonderful, […]

    • I’m always pleased to receive new recommendations, thank you!

  21. Right, now I’ve seen this piece I find I’ve read several, including Murnane (I wrote about Inland on my blog a while ago), White, Grenville & Carey. I like the look of HH Richardson & maybe Flanagan. So much to explore! Thanks for the suggestions – most helpful

    • As you can see from the comments, there are plenty of recommendations from other readers to supplement what I’ve offered.. one name conspicuously missing from this list is Stephen Orr because I hadn’t read his work back in 2011: if you can get hold of The Hands you won’t be sorry, this novel has made it to the top of bloggers’ Best Of list in both France and England.
      Maybe I need to do an updated version of this list…

  22. […] can find lists by Lisa here and here and one by Sue here. I compiled a list of all the titles I could gather from lists and […]

  23. […] featured Susan in Meet an Aussie Author, and recommended Life in Seven Mistakes as one of the ANZ LitLovers List of Best Australian Books.  I think Susan Johnson is one of our best contemporary writers of literary fiction, who […]

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