I had been thinking about a post like this a couple of weeks ago, but got no further than that initial thought, then I watched First Tuesday Book Club (how I love Jeffrey Eugenides) and saw the promotion at the end of the program for a poll on the best Australian novels. It seemed like a sign so this week my top five is just that, my favourite Australian novels. I’ve steered away from the word best because I’m no literary critic, these are just books that have appealed to me, sometimes for very personal and particular reasons. I have actually voted in the poll, you should too and if you do I’d love to know what topped your list.
1. Year of Wonders – Geraldine Brooks
I’m a fan of Geraldine Brooks in general (though People of the Book was a hard slog), but this one is hands down the best of her books. It also happens to be my favourite genre, historic fiction. Year of Wonders is set in rural England during the Plague in the mid 17th Century. The protagonist is a housemaid, Anna, who works in the rectory and takes in a lodger from London who has brought the plague with him. He soon dies and so begins a year of turbulence and unease in the small village. As the disease spreads and touches every family, taking the lives of many, the brave young priest Anna works for takes the extraordinary step of convincing the entire village that they must quarantine themselves to stop the disease in its tracks. Anna steps into the role of healer, showing a strength of character surprising even herself. It is a time of fear, superstition and grief and one which becomes, for Anna at least, a year of wonders. It is sublime writing, the sort that wraps you up completely in its world and transports you from your 21st century life to 1666 England, its landscape and people. This is the closest thing to time travel I think we will ever accomplish and I loved every minute of it. I read this book years ago, but it has stayed with me all this time. If you’ve never read anything by Geraldine Brooks, start with this one.
2. The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham
What drew me to this book initially was its setting, the town of Dungatar in the wheat belt of country Victoria. The town is small, with buildings clustered around a wide main street and the people live in each others pockets. I could see the flat, straight road on which the town is situated, the equally flat, dusty and dry landscape and the heat wiggling up from the ground as you look towards the horizon. It was like a dozen small towns in the area I grew up. I felt like I knew this town from the very first page. The story, however, was unlike anything I recognised in the most wonderful way. The Dressmaker herself is Tilly, who finds herself back in Dungatar after years living in Europe working in high end fashion and living the life. She returns to care for her mildly mad mother and discovers a town full of wonderful characters, mysterious happenings, tragedies and joy. I didn’t want to finish this book because I wanted to hold onto the place and people Ham created for as long as I could. The writing is something to savour and linger over, a truly beautiful tale, though I wonder if I felt that way because of the intensely close connection I felt with the setting.
3. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
There have countless books about Germany during World War Two, mostly horrifically tragic and often involving awe-inspiring bravery or the sheer determination to survive. The Book Thief is quite different, it’s about a foster girl Liesel who finds a safe haven with a childless couple, the Hubermanns, outside Munich and begins her life as a thief, stealing the one thing that she can’t resist, books. The first book Liesel steals is The Grave Diggers Handbook which she comes across as she’s watching her younger brother buried. At this stage she cannot read. Liesel, with the help of her gentle, accordion-playing foster father, teachers herself to read and shares the books she acquires with neighbours as they shelter in the air raid shelter as well as the Jewish man they have hiding in the cellar. The most wonderful part of this novel is the narrator, Death, who tells Liesel’s story and her close calls with his clutches. She is resilient, enduring. This book is charming, it is not the usual wartime novel, it has an innocence in a time when innocence is rare.
4. Jasper Jones – Craig Silvey
The dialog in this book is probably the best I’ve ever read, so real, brilliantly funny and so beautifully capturing the teenage boy. Usually I dislike novels with lots of dialogue, it’s like reading a script and I find it often interrupts the story more than adding to it. In this case the scenes with characters talking to each other are stunningly witty and just wonderful. When Jasper Jones, a rebellious and wild young teenager, makes a horrible discovery in a secret bushland hideout he begs the help of fellow teen, Charlie Bucktin, the geeky and straightlaced school boy. Charlie agrees, drawn to the strange Jasper Jones, and so begins an unlikely friendship and a mystery that encompasses the whole town. Charlie battles against his own better judgement in keeping Jasper’s secret, one that would put to rest the unease in the town and the personal crisis being experienced by his new sort of girlfriend (like all great teen relationships, neither of them really know where they stand with one another). Another wonderful character is Charlie’s best friend, Jeffrey Lu and their conversations about cricket, girls and falling in love left me in hysterics…. and goes some way to explain why I love working with teenagers. Their discussion about the relative advantages of having a hat made of spiders vs penises instead of fingers is hysterical. Perhaps this could be described as a mystery novel, but more than that it is about growing up and finding a place in a world which doesn’t seem to understand you. Jasper doesn’t fit in anywhere, he is neglected by his parents, shunned by his peers and seen as a delinquent by just about everyone else. Yet Jasper finds Charlie, asserts his own sense of right and wrong and eventually shows everyone that he is more than his past. Charlie, on the other hand, appears to have it made, but things at home are very different from how others imagine and he struggles to come to terms with this. Read this one for its humour and humanity and enjoy discovering two very likeable teenage boys, it will leave you with a sense of optimism for the current generation of teenagers we hear so many terrible things about.
5. Broken Shore – Peter Temple
This is a crime book, a proper crime book, with a crime – a murder – and a detective – Joe Cashin. I don’t read crime books, but this is unlike anything else I have come across and it has a distinctly Australian perspective which is probably what drew me in. Joe is an ex-homicide detective who finds himself manning the small two-man police station of Port Monro on the Victorian Coast, after receiving injuries in the line of duty. He’s an enigma, reserved, calm, kind, but also hard, sometimes cold, and often distant but he is good at his job and passionate about justice. His small community is rocked by the death of wealthy benefactor, Charles Burgoyne, and when the senior police officer from a neighbouring larger town wrongly accuses local Aborigines of the crime, Cashin is put in charge of the case. As he works on the case it unravels around him like a piece of knitting and reveals a much larger and more sinister world, one which Cashin is familiar with from his previous life.
Just, just missing out was The Secret River by Kate Grenville, another piece of historic fiction, this time about the very early days of white settlement in Australia, the absolute isolation of opening up ‘new lands’ and surviving in a strange, alien and harsh environment.
What struck me when I was doing a bit of research for this blog is just how many iconic Australian books I haven’t read. These are all fairly recent publications, I have a gaping whole in my reading list where some of the more classic Australian novels should be. Yet more books to add to that never ending to-read list!
Liz has a list on Kitchen Utensils in her top five tonight, head over and check it out.