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The best books about Melbourne

The best books about Melbourne

Australia’s second-biggest city and its environs have long been a breeding ground for literary talent, producing authors including Peter Carey and Helen Garner

Australia’s second-biggest city and its environs have long been a breeding ground for literary talent, producing authors including Peter Carey and Helen Garner

Tim Martin | December 18th 2018

If you’re reading Australian fiction, sooner or later someone is going to suggest you stick Peter Carey’s work at the top of your list: intensely clever, tormentingly piss-taking, linguistically chewy, often funny and often mad, his novels stretch in their preoccupations from Dickensian London to the Malayan jungle to the imaginary far-future archipelagoes of Efica and Voorstand. But many of them circle back, sooner or later, to Melbourne and Bacchus Marsh, the suburb 33 miles from central Melbourne where Peter Carey grew up and which flickers in and out of the background of most of his novels. Whether this is because Bacchus Marsh has something deep to say about the Australian psyche or, as Carey has suggested, because “my sister gets a kick out of seeing our unglamorous quotidian place names (Parwan, Maddingley, Lerderderg St) in works of literature”, is for you, reader, to decide.

Where to start? The most obvious jumping-off point is Carey’s recent novel, “A Long Way From Home”, which begins in Bacchus Marsh in the 1950s before whizzing its protagonists, a car-crazy married couple and a local schoolteacher, off on a continent-wide automotive endurance test and into the path of several unpleasant truths about Australia’s genocidal history. You might also look at his big outlaw, novel “The True History of the Kelly Gang” (starts outside Melbourne and ends there, won Carey one of his two Bookers), or “My Life as a Fake”, which is rooted in a famous literary hoax from the 1940s and chases its protagonists from the literary haunts and courtrooms of Melbourne to the colonies of south-east Asia. Whichever you pick up, you’ll probably have a good time.

If you are Careyed out, however, here are some more suggestions for a Melbourne visit.

Fergus Hume The Mystery of a Hansom Cab
Set amid the “Marvellous Melbourne” boom of the late 19th century and before the establishment of the Commonwealth, this doorstop thriller, published in 1886, soon became the bestselling crime novel of its time. It sold an astonishing three-quarters of a million copies in the lifetime of its author, Fergus Hume, a legal clerk and aspiring playwright, who never repeated its success. “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab” is part detective story, part social novel and part proto-Grisham legal thriller, opening in bleak documentary style with a newspaper report and a transcript of an inquest before spinning off into a twisting, cliffhangerish plot that reels from Melbourne’s fine houses and gentlemen’s clubs to the grimmest of its streets and slums. So substantial is the book’s anthropological interest, and so significant a model was it for subsequent popular fiction, that one can overlook quite a lot of the less good bits: grimly snobbish characterisations, wooden characters, rambling plot and a terrible fondness for sententious aphorism (advice to young writers; consider not beginning your chapters with sentences like “According to the copy books of our youth, ‘Procrastination is the thief of time’”). Oh well, it’s a historical document now. And as one of those, it makes pretty good reading.

Frank Hardy Power Without Glory
Another book where historical interest outpaces dramatic quality – but hold on. Published in 1950 by Frank Hardy, a Communist journalist (who grew up in Bacchus Marsh), “Power Without Glory” was less a novel than a vast and comprehensive work of investigative journalism. The protagonist is “John West”, a thinly veiled analogue for John Wren, a notorious underworld figure from Melbourne, whose past Hardy had spent several years digging into. West rises via a campaign of threat, manipulation, bribery and crime from a betting-shop fixer to the power behind several political and ecclesiastical thrones. It’s a fascinating anatomy of the period’s crime and politics, self-published and circulated as samizdat by Hardy and his Communist Party associates, that landed its author in court for a protracted, and extremely high-profile, libel case. (He won.) Get past the snail-like pace of the writing, which is patiently journalistic, earnestly political and, in passages, frighteningly dull, and it’s a perversely thrilling book.

Helen Garner The Spare Room, The Children’s Bach, etc.
Helen Garner writes short books that make people intensely uncomfortable. That’s the thesis behind her luminously perfect novel “The Spare Room”, about a middle-aged woman whose terminally ill friend turns up on her doorstep. Closely based on Garner’s own experience of looking after a friend with cancer, it’s flinty, morally testing and ducks none of the difficult emotional questions it raises. You might say the same of her earlier book “The Children’s Bach”, a challenging novella that presents, in rigorous counterpoint, the intersecting love-lives of two very different families in 1980s Melbourne. And you would definitely say it – probably in combination with a rather fretful defence or some furious expletives – of “The First Stone” (1995), a non-fiction book that is difficult to read today. Unapologetic and deliberately partisan, it presents the author’s view of a sexual-harassment suit brought against the master of Ormond College, at the University of Melbourne, by two of his students. The reason for the book’s controversy? Garner doesn’t interview the victims and sympathises with the accused man, opening her book by writing him a sympathy letter from all the “feminists nearing fifty” who disagree with the victims’ interpretation of events. It’s an extraordinarily disturbing account of the collision between different notions of feminism, and even more compelling to consider in light of #MeToo.

Chloe Hooper The Engagement
Set in contemporary Melbourne and in a creepy old pile in the countryside, this efficient Gothic novel has a lot to say, in its sidelong way, about Australian connections to the land and relationships between the sexes. An English architect, in her mid-30s and directionless, has moved to Melbourne and is working as an estate-agent. She decides, for no apparent reason, to seduce one of her clients and pretend to be a prostitute. Soon the action shifts to his remote fortress-like castle of Warrowill, which becomes a “Gaslight”-style nightmare of dead swans, poison-pen letters and half-glimpsed ghosts of previous times. You may finish this stylish novel with more questions than you started with, but it’s an unsettling ride all the way.

Christos Tsiolkas The Slap
You couldn’t get away from this novel when it came out in 2009. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the subject of various op-eds, it was almost guaranteed to have offended or delighted someone you knew. It kicks off with a man slapping a friend’s child at a barbecue in suburban Melbourne – but it soon becomes clear that Tsiolkas is after bigger game than a simple wozzee-right-wozzee-wrong debate. This is a hectic portrait of a city almost totally populated by the second- and third-generation children of minorities – Greek, Iranian, Vietnamese, Indian and Aboriginal. Grimly confrontational and relentlessly analytic, it touches on heavy subjects including masculinity, misogyny, race and sexual politics. I found it extraordinarily gripping on first encounter, although a reread suggested Tsiolkas was rather unfairly stacking the deck against the woolly-liberal straw-characters in his narrative. Still, one to argue over.

Special mention:

Nevil Shute On the Beach
A book like no other (except perhaps Raymond Briggs’s “When the Wind Blows”) in its vision of a stiff-upper-lip apocalypse. Published in 1957, towards the apex of nuclear hysteria, it imagines a world in which the bombs have dropped, most of the world is a reeking radioactive mess, and the inhabitants of Melbourne are living the last moments of their so-called-normal lives before death reaches down the hemisphere to swallow them. It’s the end of the world as a slow-burn bummer, written in functional prose and with a rather frightening lack of emotional affect, and all this – quite naturally – makes it infinitely more horrible than any quantity of the cannibalistic/pyrotechnic/murderous/thrilling post-apocalypses we’ve come to expect these days. All the scarier to read now, for obvious reasons. Happy holidays!