10 classic Australian books to read in your lifetime

Find out from experts across the literary industry what their must-read Australian classics are—and be ready for a few surprises you might not have heard of before! 

Australian books to read in your lifetime
 

Australian literature has produced some incredible books over more than a hundred years, including well-known classics that are household names, all the way through to contemporary or lesser-known works that have a special place in our culture.

Books can hold a mirror up to our communities, so here are 10 classic Australian books, including those recommended by experts, to read in your lifetime. 

1. Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Tim Winton is a much-loved and lauded Australian author, and for good reason. Cloudstreet, published in 1991, follows the ups and downs of life for two working-class families in Perth, Western Australia from the 1940s to the 1960s. It’s pacey and gripping, and paints a picture of Australian life over several generations. 

2. Throat by Ellen Van Neervan 

We asked Dr Lucy Neave, author and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Australian National University, for her recommendation.

She said, “Throat, a book of poetry by queer Mununjali author Ellen van Neerven, is unforgettable and compelling, affecting and witty, in its exploration of love, and especially in its evocation of what it is like to live in Australia in the twenty-first century as a young First Nations person.”

3. Monkey Grip by Helen Garner

A beautifully lyrical novel by one of Australia’s literary giants, Monkey Grip is considered to be loosely based off Helen Garner’s own diaries, and depicts the life of a young woman in Melbourne in the late 1970s.

Garner paints a vivid picture of Melbourne at the time through a rotating cast of young people trying to figure out life as adults as they come of age.

 

Monkey Grip Helen Garner
Helen Garner (left) and her seminal novel Monkey Grip (right). Credit: Michael Coghlan via Flickr and Penguin Random House.


4. Last Ferry to Manly by Jill Neville 

This recommendation comes from Grace Heifetz, literary agent with Left Bank Literary.

Grace describes Last Ferry to Manly as, “a little off the beaten track, but one of my all-time favourite Australian novels.” It follows the journey of Lillian, an Australian woman living in England who leaves her French husband and children to travel back to her homeland. 

5.Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton 

A contemporary classic, Boy Swallows Universe took Australia by storm when it was published in 2018. With captivating detail, Dalton tells the story of a young boy coming of age in a violent and crime-ridden working-class Brisbane of the 1980s. 

6. The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsey

We asked Nilima Rao, author of A Disappearance in Fiji, for her favourite Australian classic, and she couldn’t go past The Magic Pudding, which she describes as “The adventures of a group of friends, one of whom is a koala and another a penguin, as they travel around the Australian bush snacking on the titular magic pudding and defending it from the Pudding Thieves.

“I read this as a child who grew up in cities and it was a formative influence on my understanding of Australian bush culture.”

7. My Brilliant Career by Stella Maria Miles Franklin 

With two of Australia’s richest literary prizes named after her (both the Miles Franklin and the Stella Prize), it follows that Stella Maria Miles Franklin’s best known work My Brilliant Career is one book every Australian should read in their lifetime.

This is a coming-of-age novel that takes us into the life of a young woman in colonial Australia, trying to carve her path while combating the restrictions placed on women at the time. She is fierce, funny and brilliant, and a character who will live with you long past your reading. 

 
Miles Franklin My Brilliant Career
Stella Maria Miles Franklin (left) and her classic novel My Brilliant Career (right). Credit: Wikimedia Commons and Hachette Australia. 

8. We Come With This Place by Debra Dank 

This recommendation comes from Katarina Pearson, Literary Events Coordinator at Harry Hartog bookstore at ANU, and a very experienced bookseller. We Come With This Place swept through the 2022 literary awards as a powerful memoir from Debra Dank, a Gudanji woman.

Katarina says, “A beautifully written, personal story of resilience and hope which speaks to the reader of the special connections First Nations people have with Country. I feel privileged to read and long remember.”

9. The Harp in the South by Ruth Park 

If you went to high school in Australia, you may have come across this classic on the syllabus. The Harp in the South is a moving, tumultuous story of an Irish Catholic family in Sydney in the late 1940s. The book doesn’t shy away from the grit and difficulty of life at that time for the working class, and for women, and the writing is incredibly compelling.

10. 48 Shades of Brown by Nick Earl

A coming-of-age story set in suburban Australia, 48 Shades of Brown tells the story of Dan, a young man in his final year of school who suddenly has to move into his young twenty-something aunt’s sharehouse. With his whirlwind introduction to adult life, we see Dan navigate romance, adulthood and figuring himself out through Nick Earl’s signature humorous and warm style. 

 

Want to learn more about literature (or even start your own literary career?). Explore the short literature courses and qualifications that are available online with leading universities. 

 

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