One of the things I like to do before visiting any destination is to compile lists of novels or memoirs set in that place…or interesting books of history which tell the colourful stories. 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 my hometown of Melbourne…so these are some of the books that I have read over the years that resonated with my personal experience of life in Melbourne, or have added to my understanding of the city’s people and its history.
Books set in Melbourne
Monkey Grip by Helen Garner (1977)
Monkey Grip, published in 1977, was much-celebrated Melbourne writer, Helen Garner’s first novel. It is now considered a classic of Australian literature, and was also made into a movie in 1982. The novel is set in 1970s inner-city Melbourne and was inspired by real people and events in 1970s.
The 1970s were a time of radical change in Australian history, as new ways to approach concepts of community, family and relationships were being explored. The main character, Nora is a single parent who works as a teacher, but lives in an inner-city shared house along with students, musicians and actors, some of whom have hardened drug habits.
I first read this novel as a teenager in the mid-1980s. I’ve put it back onto the TBR pile to see how it stacks up 30 years later.
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (2008)
This novel polarises readers into those that loved it and those that detested it. I fall into the second camp. However, it has been a best-seller and has been made into a popular TV series, so lots of people disagree with my opinion of it.
At a suburban Melbourne barbecue, a man slaps a child who is not his own. The novel explores the effect this pivotal event has on a group of (mostly) friends who are all either directly or indirectly affected by the slap. The story is told from eight different points of view.
This is a book that puts middle-class 21st century Melbourne society very squarely under the microscope. But what I disliked about it is that I did not find even one of the characters likable, nor did I feel there was any aspect of redemption within the story. At the end of book, I was left with a very pessimistic and depressing view of the Melbourne community, one which doesn’t equate with my own experience.
Three Dollars by Elliot Perlman (1998)
This is another not-so-cheery book set in Melbourne. Published in 1998, it won The Age Book of the Year award for Perlman – not bad for a debut novel.
Three Dollars tells the story of Eddie, “an honest, compassionate man who finds himself, at the age of 38, with a wife, a child and three dollars”. The Melbourne it is set in (the early to mid-1990s) was the Melbourne I moved to all those years ago. And it was, at times, a fairly grim and harsh environment. Conditions in the corporate world were tough, there was a lot of downsizing, restructuring, outsourcing and meaningless corporate-speak. But in spite of it all, people retained their humour and humanity and that is what shines through in this novel.
On the Beach by Neville Shute (1957)
While she was filming the movie of this book, Ava Gardner is attributed with one of the most famous quotes about Melbourne (although she never actually said it): “On the Beach is a story about the end of the world, and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it!”, which doesn’t paint 1950s Melbourne in a particularly flattering light!
On the Beach is a post-apocalyptic novel written in 1957 (but set six years into the future in 1963 Melbourne) in which a nuclear war has destroyed most of the rest of the world, and the only survivors remain in southern Australia, awaiting the radioactive cloud which is headed their way within months.
Power Without Glory by Frank Hardy (1950)
Power Without Glory caused a huge controversy when it was published in 1950, ending up in a libel action court case. The story is set in Melbourne during the period from 1890 to 1950, and charts the rise of a fictitious character ‘John West’ – who, it was claimed, was a thinly disguised version of a real life Melbourne businessman, John Wren.
In the novel, John West rises from slum poverty to immense wealth and political influence, starting off with backyard gambling and police bribery, and moving through corruption of political leaders, fixing sporting events and violent brutality.
For months an Australian court heard evidence in the libel action brought by John Wren’s wife, claiming that John West was John Wren, and that therefore, the suggestion that West’s wife was having an affair was libelous to her. However, Frank Hardy was acquitted on the grounds that the book was a mix of fact and fiction.
Café Scheherazade by Arnold Zable (2003)
‘In Acland Street, St Kilda, there stands a cafe called Scheherazade.’ This is the first line of Arnold Zable’s novel Cafe Scheherazade. And although that was still true when Zable wrote this haunting novel, sadly it is no longer. For 50 years, Cafe Scheherazade was a St Kilda institution, however it closed its doors in 2008, and is now a St Kilda memory.
In this novel we meet Avram and Masha, who were the proprietors of the cafe, and hear the stories of their customers and how they came to be in Melbourne. The tales they tell are ones resonating with themes of displacement and survival, as they are the stories of Eastern European Jewish refugees who arrived in Melbourne after the second World War. It is a lovely, gentle and very poignant book.
The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson (1910)
‘Henry Handel Richardson’ was actually Ethel Florence Richardson, a writer who was born in 1870 to a reasonably wealthy Victorian family, which later lost its wealth in a stock-market downturn. During her teenage years, Richardson attended boarding school at Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne and it’s the experience of these years that directly inspired The Getting of Wisdom.
The main character, Laura is sent to boarding school, despite her widowed mother being only barely able to afford it. It’s a keenly observed coming of age story, an exposition of turn-of-the-century society’s mores, and includes lovely description of the long-ago past of places I now know well today such as the streets of Prahran and South Yarra, Collins Street and the city.
The Birth of Melbourne by Tim Flannery (2002)
The Birth of Melbourne is an anthology of writings which contribute to an understanding of the early history of the settlement of Melbourne (covering approximately 1800 -1910). The writings are taken from a wide range of sources and authors, offering many different perspectives on Melbourne’s history. The Birth of Melbourne includes voices that range from Indigenous elders to Governors, businessmen to visiting American writers, female diarists to Chinese immigrants. It’s the type of volume you can dip into at will, reading just an occasional piece or two…or read from cover to cover for a chronological development.
Bearbrass: Imagining Early Melbourne by Robyn Annear (1995)
Bearbrass is a volume a visitor to Melbourne could almost have in hand and read as they wander around the streets. In fact, the author, Robyn Annear encourages that in the book, by taking the reader to the modern day location, then stripping away the current reality and recreating the village history of that spot: ‘Just a little way down Collins Street, beside Henry Buck’s, is a perpetually dark but sheltered laneway called Equitable Place. Here you’ll find a number of places to eat and drink. Settle yourself in the window of one, shut your eyes, and picture this scene of yore… ‘
Bearbrass was one of the names by which the early settlement of Melbourne was known. In this book, Robyn Annear retells in colourful detail, some of the stories from those days – from the arrival of white settlers in 1835 until the first gold rushes shook the town. Reading it, I was able to vividly imagine the history of the places under my feet as I walked the streets of the 21st century metropolis. Annear has also written A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne, a book which uses the story of Whelan the Wrecker (Melbourne’s most famous demolition firm) to uncover the physical history of Melbourne’s buildings.
Lovesong by Alex Miller (2010)
This novel could feature on a list of books set in Paris, as well as this Melbourne list, as the story is set in both places. An Australian tourist (John) lost in a suburb on the fringes of Paris, seeks shelter in a small, rundown Tunisian cafe run by the widow Houria and her young niece, Sabiha – an event which irrevocably changes all their lives.
Years later in suburban Melbourne, John tells the story to Ken, an ageing writer. It is a story about home and family, love, passion and human flaws.
Sunnyside by Joanna Murray-Smith (2005)
Joanna Murray-Smith is best-known as one of Australia’s finest playwrights, but she is also an excellent novel writer. And here in Sunnyside, she turns her attention to contemporary middle-class Melbourne society. The cover of the book contains the line, “It should be nice. But it isn’t.” And that’s a pretty good summary of the novel!
The main characters, Alice and Harry Haskins move to a fictitious Melbourne beachside suburb, where big houses, swimming pools, dinner parties and tennis are the norm. Like a pulp-fiction cliche, the ‘niceness’ all comes undone when one of their friends has an affair with the pool-boy – except in Murray-Smith’s deft hands, it is no cliche. She skillfully skewers the characters with keenly observed detail of contemporary middle-class life.
True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (2000)
This one isn’t so much set in the city of Melbourne, as in country Victoria. But most visitors to Melbourne will run across at least a reference to Ned Kelly at some point – whether it’s in seeing the famous armor at the State Library or finding out about him and his demise at The Old Melbourne Gaol.
Ned Kelly is the most infamous of Australia’s 19th century bushrangers. To some he is a common criminal, a thief, a murderer…to others he is remembered as a hero of the working class, a larger-than-life figure who defied the oppression of the authorities. Ned’s first stint in prison was at the tender age of 15, and by 26 he had become the most wanted man in the colony of Victoria. He was eventually captured, tried and hanged at Melbourne Gaol in 1880.
In this book, Peter Carey lets Ned tell his own story in a style inspired by Ned’s famous Jerilderie Letter…unpunctuated narrative, packed with 19th century Irish-Australian vernacular.
The Heart Garden by Janine Burke (2005)
Sunday Reed (nee Baillieu) and her husband John are fascinating characters in the history of 20th century Melbourne. Sunday was born into one of the most ‘establishment’ of Melbourne families and was destined to be a society princess. But instead she created a totally different life. In 1935, Sunday and John bought Heide, a weatherboard farmhouse in Heidleberg (which was then semi-rural, but is now a suburb of Melbourne). They lived there until their deaths in the 1980s and their home acted as a focus for a group of artists, including Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, John Perceval, Joy Hester and Charles Blackman. Heide, and its successor the modernist Heide 2 – played a significant role in the development of Australian modernism.
In this biography by Janine Burke, Sunday’s role as the muse to many of the artists and particularly her role in the work of Sidney Nolan is examined. Nolan painted his iconic Ned Kelly series on the table at Heide.
The Heide homes are now open to the public, together with galleries, gardens and outdoor sculpture park: Heide Museum of Modern Art.
Wicked But Virtuous by Mirka Mora (2000)
Artist, Mirka Mora, is one of Melbourne’s living legends. She’s a colourful character, who having narrowly escaped World War II atrocities, arrived in Melbourne from Paris in 1951, with her husband Georges. Together, they contributed significantly to transforming the local art scene and engendering a sophisticated culture in the city. Mirka’s studio at 9 Collins Street in the city became a focal point for many of Melbourne’s artists. As did, at a later point, the Mirka Café in Exhibition Street and the Moras other restaurants, Balzac and Tolarno. Mirka was part of the same group of artists that hung out at Heide, and she counted John and Sunday Reed among her closest friends.
Visitors to Melbourne are likely to encounter one of Mirka’s public artworks around the city, including mosaic murals at Flinders Street Station and St Kilda Pier.
Wicked but Virtuous, is Mirka’s autobiography and is a joyful account of an incredible, bohemian life lived well. A second book, Love and Clutter, contains her “musings on the extraordinary nature of ordinary objects”.
Have you read any great books set in Melbourne?
The links are to versions of each book available at www.bookdepository.com, or where the book is not available, the links are to the works by that author. These are affiliate links.
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