The best books to uncover Sydney’s past

Who am I?

I arrived in Sydney in the 90s knowing as much as one brief peruse the Berlitz Guide could provide me. For the next 25 years I immersed myself in its beautiful harbour and beaches whilst writing four novels, all set in my hometown of London. But when I sat down to write my fifth novel, The Unforgiving City, set in 1890s Sydney, I drew a complete blank. What was my adopted city’s history? Did it even have one? If so, where was it? By the time I’d finished the novel I’d unearthed a whole other, hidden, Sydney. I will never view my new home town the same way again. 


I wrote...

The Unforgiving City

By Maggie Joel,

Book cover of The Unforgiving City

What is my book about?

"Maggie Joel’s The Unforgiving City is a fantastic look back at the history of Sydney and the stories that are all too believable for that time. It is a grand, sweeping tale that grabs you the moment you open the first page. Each character’s story is completely gripping, interwoven from character to character with perfect ease… Maggie Joel has created a stunning and evocative story that will sweep you off your feet and put you down right in the middle of the dirty streets of turn of the century Sydney."

Better Reading

The books I picked & why

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Voss

By Patrick White,

Book cover of Voss

Why this book?

I first read Voss – Patrick White’s 1957 fictionalised account of the doomed expedition and eventual disappearance of German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt - 25 years ago at university. I returned to it a couple of years ago as I embarked on my fifth novel, similarly set in 19th century Sydney, recalling how I enjoyed the novel in my earlier reading but finding myself, in this my second reading two decades later, utterly blown away by White’s stunning and bitingly witty evocation of mid-1800s Sydney society. 


The Harp in the South

By Ruth Park,

Book cover of The Harp in the South

Why this book?

This is an Australian classic. Published in 1948, Park wrote this, her first novel, when she moved to the crowded, chaotic impoverished inner Sydney suburb of Surry Hills. Fascinated and deeply stirred by what she saw, her novel centres on the close-knit Darcy family whose love for one another and enduring joy for life is in stark contrast to the harsh and occasionally brutal world around them. Park’s love for her characters and for her city shines through and provides a magical yet thoughtful window on a Sydney in the years immediately following the war. I worked in Surry Hills for many years and I set much of my last novel on its streets and laneways so to walk those same streets in Ruth Park’s footsteps was such a treat.


Seven Poor Men of Sydney

By Christina Stead,

Book cover of Seven Poor Men of Sydney

Why this book?

Published in 1934, this is Stead’s first novel, and its Modernistic portrayal of a loosely connected group of young men and women existing and interacting in a poverty-wracked but rapidly changing between-the-Wars Sydney caused a literary storm at the time. The City, caught between its Colonial heritage and its future as a modern Twentieth Century metropolis is the real star of the novel even as its seven bewildered, beleaguered characters roam its bay and suburbs, its libraries, university, and pubs, attempting to negotiate their changing city and their place in it. I couldn’t write a novel about Sydney without visiting Christina Stead’s Sydney first.


Shady Acres: Politicians, Developers & Sydney's Public Transport Scandals 1872-1895

By Lesley Muir,

Book cover of Shady Acres: Politicians, Developers & Sydney's Public Transport Scandals 1872-1895

Why this book?

A librarian friend recommended Lesley Muir’s explosive exposé of the scandal and corruption that underpinned the development of Sydney’s transport networks in the late Nineteenth Century. Spanning the decades immediately preceding Australia’s Federation, Shady Acres uncovers, as Elizabeth Farrelly says in her introduction, "the perennial crookedness of Sydney’s planning." As I immersed myself in 1890s Sydney for my own novel – and with my story and characters focussed on these very men who sat in the New South Wales’  parliament - I found the book provided the sort of rich vein of detail that allowed me to really bring this time and these people to life. 


The Timeless Land

By Eleanor Dark,

Book cover of The Timeless Land

Why this book?

Eleanor Dark’s 1941 seminal fictionalised account of Sydney’s early development into a convict settlement in the 1790s was the book pressed upon me by my housemate in the first few months after my arrival in Australia. It was an inspired choice. Dark’s depiction of the incomers' initial, frequently disastrous, attempts to set up a colony, their uneasy, often brutal interaction with the indigenous peoples, and their halting and abortive first explorations into the hinterland were pivotal in forming my impressions of the city I had moved to. Three decades later, when I came to set my own novel in historic Sydney, I returned to Dark’s Timeless Land and found it as inspiring as I had all those years ago. Truly a timeless novel.


5 book lists we think you will like!

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