The best books for understanding the Australian spirit

Who am I?

I’m an author, poet, and editor who works in natural history and social history publishing by day, explaining the unique flora and fauna, culture, and spirit of this ancient continent. By night, I moonlight as a fiction author, writing whatever takes my fancy. Seeing Australia and understanding Australia aren’t always the same thing in a country with unforgiving stony desert at its heart, more venomous creepy-crawlies than you can ‘poke a stick at’ (but please don’t!), the oldest living culture in the world, and a complex history. So, here are my recommendations for novels that travel deep into the Australian spirit.

I wrote...

What the Sea Wants

By Karin Cox,

Book cover of What the Sea Wants

What is my book about?

Juliette Brewer can’t face the truth. Ash Gordon can’t bear another lie. A passion for surfing brings them together, but will the sea, with all its sorrows, tear them apart? Be swept away by this contemporary Australian surf romance with all the depth of the Pacific.

“I want to live my life in this book and I know I'll be happy. It's realistic and fun and loving and all I hope for. Karin Cox, you rock!" Linda, Kalpa's Book Blog

The Books I Picked & Why

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By Tim Winton,

Book cover of Breath

Why this book?

Winton is one of Australia’s most celebrated authors for his effortless prose. In Breath, he vividly captures the moment restless ennui of life in a small town meets the Australian desire to push boundaries, building background tension that eventually crashes Aussie surf culture down like a dumper and leaves everything broken. While the award-winning Cloudstreet is often considered Winton’s ‘Great Australian Novel’, the historic setting and vernacular felt somewhat contrived to me. I consider Breath Winton’s true masterpiece, which stays with you long after you finish the final page.

The Harp in the South

By Ruth Park,

Book cover of The Harp in the South

Why this book?

To me, this is the original Cloudstreet—a true-to-life, bittersweet tale of the impoverished Darcy family and their tribulations in a slum in Surrey Hills, Sydney, following the depression. Ruth Park might be a Kiwi (New Zealander), but we won’t hold that against her, although some might be unable to see past the attitudes and occasional slurs that were prevalent at the time. This is the second book in Park’s heartwarming, gritty and realistic series about Australian persistence and courage in the face of misfortune but it was written and published first. While parts of this Australia of yesteryear are now long gone, the love and laughter the Darcy family share still have a place set for it at Australian dinner tables. 

The Yield

By Tara June Winch,

Book cover of The Yield

Why this book?

It’s easy to see why this novel won the 2020 Miles Franklin Award (Australia’s highest literary honour). Not only does it tell an important story about the need to preserve Indigenous Australian culture and languages, but its characters are so deftly wrought, so relatable, that you feel like you are there with them, battling to save Prosperous from destruction and avoid dispossession following the death of Albert 'Poppy' Gondiwindi and the slow, terminal decline of all he once knew. Winch’s evocative prose, particularly obvious in ‘Poppy’s’ voice, is a delight to read. Augustine, with her search for belonging, remembering, and sometimes forgetting following the suspicious death of her sister, is an exercise in complexity. 

Seven Little Australians

By Ethel Turner,

Book cover of Seven Little Australians

Why this book?

First published in 1894, this is definitely a nostalgic choice; however, there’s a good reason why it became the first Australian novel to be continuously in print for 100 years in 1994. Esther Turner’s classic novel is Australia’s answer to Little Women, and if you don’t fall in love with the seven boisterous Woolcot children and end up in tears over the tragic events at Yarrahappini, I’m afraid you’re even harder-hearted than Captain Woolcot himself!

Boy Swallows Universe

By Trent Dalton,

Book cover of Boy Swallows Universe

Why this book?

Equal parts quirky, literary, humorous, and touching, Dalton’s debut novel won him a record four Australian Book Industry Awards in 2019, and it’s not hard to see why. Boy Swallows Universe follows the ups and downs of teen protagonist Eli’s descent into a world of drug-lords and prison barons, all while caring for his messed-up parents and mute brother and seeing the world in a uniquely beautiful way. Ex-journalist Dalton’s prose will sometimes take your breath away in this modern classic about life in the far-outer suburbs of Brisbane, Australia, where a ‘normal’ life seems simultaneously too far away and too close for comfort.

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