The best books about Australia

The best books about Australia

Robert Drewe’s The Shark Net (2000) was one of the books that I read shortly before moving to Australia. It’s a beautifully written work of non-fiction that is, on the surface, about a series of murders in the Perth suburb where Drewe grew up in the 1950s. Drewe’s perfect evocation of the dark side of the suburban sun and surf life is rich and convincing.

What separates The Shark Net for me from a host of other Australian memoir-lit is the balance it achieves between nostalgia and truth. It is, at its core, a universal story about the loss of a kind of innocence.

The 1972 Booker Prize-nominated The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was my first introduction to Thomas Kenneally, originally via the seminal 1978 Fred Schepisi film. I think Keneally is at his best (as with Schindler’s Ark) when he is dealing with a narrative based on real events and this story of the violent eruption of a systematically abused Aborigine is as blistering and complex as Keneally’s better known work. Keneally has spoken of his regret in writing in an indigenous voice but I, for one, am glad he did, as he created a work of real heart and feeling that was a significant milestone in Australian thinking about race. It also helps that he’s an Evertonian.

Turning from racial politics to sexual, at a writers festival last year I was on a panel with Krissy Kneen, the Brisbane-based author of Triptych (2011). Well, blow me if it wasn’t just about the filthiest, freakiest book I’d ever read. Sex with an octopus? No problem. Given the moralistic new artistic puritanism emerging in Australia, Kneen’s ballsy, fearless and perfectly-realised prose threw down a timely challenge to the right-wing Queensland nutjobs bent on censorship. Dirty, dirty stuff – and all the better for it.

I was at art school when Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New was published in 1980 and became an instant classic. It remains one of the very few books on contemporary art that can be read for pleasure. Whatever you think of Hughes’ opinions – and he had many – no-one could argue with his writing. For me it was a revelation that art criticism could be clear, well-argued and crisp while still talking about complex and multi-layered concepts.

My last choice is Peter Temple’s Truth (2010); that rarest of rare birds – a crime book that won a national literary award. Truth, which won the 2010 Miles Franklin, is a classy, if bleak, crime novel set in Melbourne and against the backdrop of raging bush fires. If I had a criticism it would be that the book is written solely for Australian readers, so densely packed are the arcane cultural references. But what do I know? I’m just another in a long line of whinging Poms.


Down Among the Dead Men by Ed Chatterton is out now, published by Arrow.