The World Down Under: 10 Best Books to Understand Australia

Kosciuszko National Park, Australia/Photo by Heiko Otto on Unsplash

With its consistently high-ranking quality of life, high life expectancy, solid social safety net, and relatively small population, Australia has somewhat quietly positioned itself as one of the better countries in the world to call home. Officially known as the Commonwealth of Australia, the country is a Commonwealth nation with Elizabeth II as the current Queen of Australia and does enjoy full legislative independence. Despite close relations with the United Kingdom, and the fact that public support for the monarchy has been trending up in recent years, the move to become a formal Republic is a consistent issue in Australian politics.

Australians are popularly known for their hearty frontier (or in this case, Outback) spirit, casual friendliness, and pervasive egalitarian core. These traits also permeate the country’s literature with writing that is often irreverent and profound, standing alongside a literary tapestry that is heavily influenced by decades of colonial attitudes, and a complex, fraught relationship with the nation’s indigenous population. The books and novels below, most by Australian authors, should give insight into the literary world down under.

  • The cover of the book A Long Way from Home

    A Long Way from Home

    A novel

    This novel from two-time Booker Prize-winning author Peter Carey takes readers on a raucous journey through Australia circa 1954. The novel follows Irene Bobs, her car salesman husband, and a failed schoolteacher-turned-navigator competing in a grueling 10,000 mile race – the infamous Redex Trial.  It’s a twist-laden, adventure-filled page-turner from one of Australia’s most celebrated writers.

  • The cover of the book Picnic at Hanging Rock

    Picnic at Hanging Rock

    This novel centers around the mysterious disappearance of three girls and a teacher from an exclusive private school. Following a trip to the isolated Hanging Rock in the Australian bush, only one of the three girls returns, but with no memory of what befell the others. It is a classic of both Australian and Gothic literature, ranking among titles like Rebecca and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

  • The cover of the book The Slap

    The Slap

    A Novel

    In this book, Christos Tsiolkas turned an astute and unflinching eye on the inner turmoil and tenuous relationships of a group suburban parents. When a man slaps the child of another couple at a neighborhood event, the fallout spirals through the small community and changes the lives of virtually everyone present. The Slap is an exhausting and emotionally devastating examination of the social, political, and ethnic intersections of contemporary Australia.

  • The cover of the book Dirt Music

    Dirt Music

    Set against the backdrop of Western Australia, Dirt Music centers on a broken musician named Luther Fox who makes a living as an illegal fisherman following the unexpected death of his family. When Luther meets the wife of another fisherman, he begins to find a way back to the dirt music – anything you can play on a verandah or porch – that once made his life a happy one. Dirt Music is a tightly calibrated tale of grief and emotional resonance.

  • The cover of the book Big Little Lies

    Big Little Lies

    With HBO’s marquee adaptation taking awards season by storm and with a second season on the way, now is the perfect time to dig into the bestseller that underpins the hit TV series. Big Little Lies centers on a small group of mothers in a coastal Australian community and a incident of bullying that sets off a chain of events that will alter the lives of everyone involved.

  • The cover of the book The Thorn Birds

    The Thorn Birds

    This Australian classic, originally published in 1977, is a sweeping, decades-spanning family saga. The novel focuses on three generations of the Cleary family on a sheep station in the Australian Outback. At the novel’s heart is the story of Meggie Cleary and the forbidden love that defined much of her life.

  • The cover of the book Carpentaria


    Built on a foundation of myth and magical realism, Carpentaria charts the ongoing disputes between the Aboriginal Pricklebush clan and various inhabitants of the fictional town of Desperance on the Gulf of Carpentaria.  The novel chronicles the complex politics and societal issues that underscore the issues facing Australia’s indigenous peoples.

  • The cover of the book Gould’s Book of Fish

    Gould’s Book of Fish

    Gould’s Book of Fish is an occasionally surreal epic – one part contemporary fable, one part forbidden love story.  It tells the story of a man named William Buelow Gould who is sentenced to life in prison in a penal colony and ordered to paint a book of fish. As he begins an affair with the warden’s black mistress, Gould starts to the chart the bizarre ambitions of the prison staff as well as the daily miseries that surround him.

  • The cover of the book In a Sunburned Country

    In a Sunburned Country

    Equal parts travelogue and memoir, with In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson works his magic on Australia. With his usual wit, endless curiosity, and flair for storytelling, Bryson makes it across Australia exploring destinations both on and off the beaten path.

  • The cover of the book A Fraction of the Whole

    A Fraction of the Whole

    Steve Toltz made a sizable literary splash with his debut novel. It received widespread acclaim and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. A Fraction of the Whole is a darkly comic, immensely engaging examination of a man’s attempts to come to terms with not only his father’s complicated legacy, but also what that legacy means for his own life.