Saturday, October 07, 2006

Ten favorite Australian novels

Kim Forrester, an Australian ex-pat who lives in London, runs the Reading Matters blog. About a year ago she listed her ten "favourite Australian fiction books, written by Australian authors and set in Australia."

I've a read a couple of her choices--one was the best book I read in 2005--and have a few more on my "to read" list; several were not even on my radar screen, but they are now.

Here are a couple of titles from Kim's list:

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail (1998)

This is a wonderful fable-like story set in rural NSW, where a man plants hundreds of different species of gum trees on his farm. He announces that his 19-year-old daughter, Ellen, can marry the first man to name all the species correctly. A series of would-be suitors from around the world turn up, but many are more interested in the challenge than the prize. Set under the searing light of the unrelentless Australian sun, this story reads like a magical fairytale about love, destiny and nature. I loved this book when I first read it about six years ago and I'm looking forward to seeing the film version (starring Nicole Kidman as Ellen), which is due for release next year.

This book won the 1999 Commonwealth Writers Prize and the 1999 Miles Franklin Award.

[maz note: the future of the Kidman film is much in doubt]

The Great World by David Malouf (1990)

The blurb on the back of this book sums it up better than I ever could: "Every city, town and village has its memorial to war. Nowhere are these monuments more eloquent than in Australia, generations of whose young men have enlisted to fight other people's battles - from Gallipoli and the Somme to Malaya and Vietnam. In The Great World, his finest novel yet, David Malouf gives a voice to that experience."

Essentially The Great World is about two men, Vic and Digger, who become POWs during the Second World War and how that soul-destroying experience affects the rest of their lives. It is, above all else, a tale of mateship and a study of human nature under extreme conditions.

When I read this in my mid-twenties the story stunned me. It was the first time I'd ever read a book about men living under such brutal conditions; these were the men of my grandfather's generation, who still lived and walked among us. There's one particular scene in this book which remains with me more than a decade after having read it: of a POW guiltily gulping down food that does not belong to him while eyeballing his mate who has caught him in the act. That one scene says so much about the human condition, it still makes me cringe with a kind of knowing embarrassment.

This book won the 1991 Miles Franklin Award, the 1991 Commonwealth Writers Prize and the 1991 Prix FĂ©mina Etranger.

Click here to read about all ten titles.

Bonus list: Perry Middlemiss, an authority on Australian literature (and the Man Booker prize), posted a list of his own "Essential Modern Australian Novels" last year. There is a little overlap with Kim's.

--Marshal Zeringue