One of the things I like to do before visiting any destination is to compile lists of novels or memoirs set in that place. The pre-trip reading of a few titles provides texture to my experience of the destination, and an understanding of some of the more personal stories of those who live (or lived) there.
This post is part of an occasional series where I provide a list of novels or memoirs set in a few of my favourite destinations. But in this case, the destination is Perth (and Western Australia), which is where I grew up…so these are some of the books that I have read over the years that resonated with my personal experience of life in WA and/or added to my understanding of its history.
Books set in Perth or Western Australia
The Shark Net by Robert Drewe (2000)
In the 1950s, the author of The Shark Net (Robert Drewe) moved with his family from Melbourne to Perth. He was six years old at the time. His childhood in a middle-class Perth beachside suburb was deeply affected by the serial killings taking place in Perth over a five-year period. It was a course of events which forever changed Perth’s innocence as a city. The murders were mostly carried out within Perth’s middle-class Western suburbs and created widespread anxiety and gossip. Robert Drewe says that the murders ‘both intrigued me and weighed heavily on me for three decades’. And so, to make sense of it, he had to write about it.
Although a book set against a serial killer’s sinister spree doesn’t sound the most inviting of background reading about a place, in this memoir, Drewe very eloquently captures many aspects of everyday life in the Perth of the 1950s and 1960s. There is an almost palpable sense of Perth being the most isolated city in the world, a fact which pervades and shapes the story.
Dirt Music by Tim Winton (2001)
Tim Winton is one of the most celebrated of Western Australia’s contemporary authors. He has written 11 novels and several short story collections and plays. He has won many awards, including the Miles Franklin Award in 1984 for his second novel, Shallows. His writing is inspired by a real sense of landscape and place, and most are set in Western Australia.
Dirt Music is set on a dramatic piece of WA coastline and is ultimately a love story about people rendered fragile by grief and regret, who are living in a community which reeks of violent secrets. Over the course of the story, the lure of music looms large, and the story heads uncontrollably towards a dangerous conclusion.
The story is set in White Point; a fictionalized fishing community which is about one hour north of Perth. It is a place where humble fisherman have become very wealthy by catching and supplying crayfish (lobsters) for the Asian market.
As well as painting vivid descriptions of landscape, Tim Winton is very skilled in creating characters that jump off the page. There’s a cast of colourful White Point characters in Dirt Music and I felt they were very finely observed characters typical of parts of rural and regional Western Australia.
Cloudstreet by Tim Winton (1991)
I haven’t yet read Cloudstreet. It is however, one of the next books on my TBR pile – partly because it is one of the VCE English texts for 2015, and Queenie is studying it…so I’m intrigued to know what it is like and have included it here as another example of the works of Tim Winton. What I do know about it already is that it is considered to be a classic, and is a bit of a family saga which many readers find inspiring.
The novel is based on the Pickle family, who have inherited a big house called Cloudstreet in a suburb of Perth. They are a family which has been touched by disaster and are attempting to rebuild their lives. The Pickle Family take in another family, The Lambs, as tenants. The story spans the years from 1944 to 1964.
Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey (2009)
This coming-of-age novel is set in the summer of 1965 in a fictionalised WA regional mining town. Thirteen year old Charlie Bucktin is woken by knocking on the window of his sleep-out. It is Jasper Jones, bad-boy outcast of the town.
Jasper begs for Charlie’s help, and when he eagerly agrees, Charlie becomes witness to a horrific discovery, one which ultimately creates fear and suspicion in the town. As the story unfolds, Charlie starts to see aspects of his life in a brand new light – family relationships, inequality, race relations.
The writing in this novel is exceptional and creates a WA small-town environment which resonated with me.
The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow (1965)
I first read this novel when I was in school, and have read it a couple of times since, enjoying it just as much on each re-reading.
The novel is set in 1941 in Geraldton, a town on the WA coast. The main character, Rob Coram is six, and the on-going war doesn’t seem to make impact on his life, until his favourite older cousin Rick signs up and goes off to the frontlines. Rick returns several years later, much changed by his experiences and the child, Rob is disillusioned by the fact that his innocent and secure family life is disintegrating around him.
This is a novel which captures very well the impact of the Second World War on the WA homefront, and the aftermath of that War. The isolation of Western Australia proved no buffer for the change that the War brought.
A Fortunate Life by Albert B. Facey (1981)
The memoir, A Fortunate Life is a Western Australian classic which has sold over half a million copies, and been turned into a play and a television series. It is the simply-written story of Albert B. Facey, who as an eight-year old orphan started working as an itinerant labourer on the WA rural frontier. He went off to World War I, where he fought at Gallipoli and returned (badly injured) to farming, only to lose his farm during the Great Depression. He met his future wife after returning from the War and they went on to have seven children (one of whom was killed in the Second World War). Despite the physical, mental and emotional hardship he endured, Facey is completely sincere in calling this memoir ‘A Fortunate Life’. He truly believed that was what he had experienced.
The simple honesty and courage of this man, told against the background of the back-breaking development of the Western Australian agricultural industry makes this a compelling read. It was first published in 1981, just nine months before Facey’s death and I remember reading this as a teenager with a sense of gratitude and awe for the pioneers who created the WA I was living in then.
Coonardoo by Katherine Susannah Pritchard (1929)
I’m pretty sure I read Coonardoo in my first year of my University degree. It was considered a very daring novel when it was written as it tells the story of a young Aboriginal woman who is trained from childhood to be the housekeeper at a WA station (ranch) owned by Hugh Watt. A loving and sexual relationship develops between Coonardoo and Hugh – which is a concept that shocked readers in the 1920s. The love between them could never be acknowledged and over the course of the novel, it destroys not only Coonardoo, but also the community they lived in.
The novel was originally submitted under a male pseudonym to the Bulletin Magazine’s annual literary competition in 1928, where it won equal first prize despite one of the judges protesting that “a white man could never feel any ‘higher emotion’ than pity for an Aboriginal woman”. It was serialised in the Bulletin, but public outrage was so inflamed, that publication of it in book form was knocked back in Australia. It was eventually published in London.
A Faithful Picture: the letters of Eliza and Thomas Brown at York in the Swan River Colony 1841-1852 edited by Peter Cowan (1977)
This book, which is relatively difficult to find nowadays (try a library perhaps?) is a collection of the letters of Eliza and Thomas Brown who were early settlers in the Swan River Colony (which became the City of Perth). Written in the second decade of the Colony’s existence, they are a fascinating insight into day-to-day life for colonial pioneers. Most of the letters are written by Eliza Brown back to her father, William Bussey of Oxfordshire, England, ‘a gentleman of considerable means’.
There is one particularly poignant letter (which I have written about in an earlier post) which describes how she had learned of her brother’s death back in England, months after the fact, via a passing remark in a letter from her brother-in-law.
Kings in Grass Castles by Mary Durack (1959)
Still in a pioneering vein, Kings in Grass Castles is a family biography written a bit like a novel, and is considered a classic of Australian historical literature. Author, Mary Durack’s grandfather left Ireland for Australia in 1853 and over the next 40+ years built a cattle empire across the northern expanses of Australia. Mary Durack has diligently reconstructed the events of that time, creating a sweeping family saga which not only tells the story of one family, but throws light on the pioneering process of Australia’s Kimberly region cattle industry.
Portrait with Background: A Life of Georgina Molloy by Alexandra Hasluck (1955)
Another book which can be tricky to track down, this biography by Alexandra Hasluck (aka Lady Hasluck, wife of Australia’s Governor-General:1969-74) traces the life of Western Australian pioneer Georgiana Molloy. Together with her husband, Captain John Molloy, Georgiana was one of the small party which colonised Augusta in the south of Western Australia. Leaving a sheltered life in Scotland, this young bride was suddenly faced with untold physical hardship, trials and tribulations. She not only rose to the challenges this life presented, she also went on to become one of Western Australia’s pioneering botanists.
Have you read any great books set in Perth or Western Australia?
The links are to versions of each book available at www.bookdepository.com, or where the book is no longer available, the links are to the works by that author. These are affiliate links.