Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A literary guide to Australia

Emma Pearse, an Aussie expat who is on the editorial staff of New York magazine, has written Salon's literary guide to Australia.

She opens--and closes--with Bill Bryson's very engaging In a Sunburned Country, a book that could and should be read even by those with no interest in Australia.

Pearse also recommends:

Jill Ker Conway's 1989 memoir, The Road From Coorain, an earnest account of growing up in a rural part of New South Wales. The country's most populous state, it boasts Sydney as its capital, and spans a vast chunk of our famed, lush central-east coast (Bondi just one of its many legendary beaches) and then deep into the barren mainland, much of which is bush or desert. Conway writes intricate, intimate descriptions of the flat, crackling landscape: From the purple desert peas and "nut-flavored" grasses that thrive around the vital Murray River, she sweeps readers into "the dead heart of the country," where her family lives off the land, cultivating grain, breeding sheep and cattle, and silently hoping for rain.

Hard work governs Conway's childhood, broken up in "a good season" by rowdy dances in the closest town. In the prevailing low times, however, depression seeps in. Conway writes of an unspoken divide between her extraordinarily beautiful mother and proud, hardworking father, a schism that plays over and over in Australian literature: "It seemed flatter and more barren than any land [my mother] had ever seen. She saw no landmarks to identify directions, only emptiness. My father saw a strong fertile soil, indications of grazed-out saltbush, dips and changes in the contours of the land and its soils, landmarks of all kinds."

Conway makes the perfect travel companion: She is unsparing and sincere as she writes of her experience traveling from the country's desert through country towns and outer urban areas until she arrives with her mother in Sydney. The majority of Australians have never lived on this land, but many of us learn about it through Conway. She writes of a time that has passed, but the contrast she conveys between urban and rural, bush and city, is as stark now as then and as essential to the contemporary Australian experience.

The death of her father when Conway is 11 is the impetus for her move from the country -- he dies while fixing a pump that might water the family's withering flock of sheep. It's as wrenching a story as Peter Carey's epic and audacious novel True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), which begins: "I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter." The book, which was an international bestseller, imagines the life of infamous bushranger Ned Kelly, perhaps the most celebrated (real) figure in all of Australian history -- picture Jesse James, Paul Bunyan and Paul Revere rolled into one. Carey, one of our most celebrated authors, infuses Kelly with such wit and empathy that his book reads as much as a tempestuous coming-of-age tale as an opinionated retelling of a fraught and crucial time in Australian history.

Across the continent, Pearse locates another favorite:
Said to be the most isolated city in the world, Perth and its surrounding coastal and country towns provide the backdrop for most of Tim Winton's novels, the best of which is Dirt Music (2001) a slow, seething domestic drama set in a small, well-to-do fishing village. Georgie is a privileged, edgy ex-nurse and city girl, married to the town's star fisherman. She reads literature and binge-drinks and -- when she decides to end her monotony and hitchhike out of town -- meets Lu, a hunky musician with a sad past. The book conveys an insidious hopelessness even in the midst of remarkable natural beauty -- "sun-torched surfaces," quaint and quiet dirt roads and steady, open water. People with nicknames like Fox and Bird and Darkie drink themselves to unnecessary deaths or float for days across the thick blue of the ocean. Winton's choppy, rhythmic language captures the flowing and convoluted pace of western Australian life: "The grey sand was hot underfoot and the afternoon sun roasted the back of her neck until they came to a grove of tuarts whose shade and pad of fallen litter offered some relief."
Pearse recommends other titles; read her essay here.

Click here to read an excerpt from The Road From Coorain.

Click here to read an excerpt from In a Sunburned Country.

Click here to read an excerpt from True History of the Kelly Gang.

Click here to read an excerpt from Dirt Music.

Perry Middlemiss has brief biographies of Tim Winton, Peter Carey, and many other Australian writers here.

I discussed Tim Winton's Cloudstreet--"the best novel I read in 2005"--here.

Friend of the Blog "Dutch" shared some thoughts on books that made him curious about Australia before he lived there.

Other items in Salon's literary guide series include:
A literary guide to Norway
A literary guide to Turkey
A literary guide to Japan
A literary guide to Martha's Vineyard
A literary guide to West Texas
A literary guide to Togo
A literary guide to Brooklyn
A literary guide to Miami

--Marshal Zeringue