We love reading about a destination before we visit. Today we share the first in a new series of articles about books and films set in Sydney and introduce the latest member of the team, young writer Nathan Morgan-Hammer who reviews a few of his favourite novels set in Sydney.
Novels you need to read if you’re visiting Sydney
So you’re off to Sydney, and you’ve got some time to kill. The plane trip is long and your seat’s uncomfortable. Why not do some reading? Reading the literature of a place is a great way to get immersed in it, to understand it on more than just a superficial level. With that in mind, here are seven novels about Sydney that genuinely encapsulate the Harbour City.
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Pemulwuy by Eric Wilmott
It only fits to start this list with a book about Sydney’s violent and bloody birth. Penned by engineer, academic and accomplished inventor Eric Wilmott AM, Pemulwuy is a novelisation of Australia’s first Frontier War. Centring the most crucial figure in the indigenous resistance, the iconic “Rainbow Warrior”, Pemulwuy. Fighting a brutal guerrilla war against the burgeoning colony of Sydney, Wilmott brings light and colour to a story that many Australians still haven’t heard of.
Charting Pemulwuy’s journey from uneasy co-existence with the colony to his ultimate demise at their hands, Pemulwuy is a must-read for anyone wishing to understand the foundation of Sydney as a city.
Another must-read book is Growing Up in Aboriginal Australia.
The Secret River by Kate Grenville
Whereas Pemulwuy centres the Aboriginal resistance to colonisation, the Secret River by Kate Grenville focuses on the colonists themselves. Emancipated convict William Thornhill and his family are the centre of the action here.
The “Secret River” of the tale is the Hawkesbury, which runs just above Sydney and was an early site of expansion for the colony. Thornhill, born into dire poverty, longs for land of his own, a place where he can raise a family away from the tyranny and depredations of 18th Century British life. But the Hawkesbury, of course, is not empty, and what follows is a tense conflict with the land’s original inhabitants, exploring in an artful and honest way the bloody process of colonisation.
Kangaroo by DH Lawrence
Although it might have fallen by the wayside in recent years, Kangaroo, published in 1923 by English writer DH Lawrence is an Australian classic. Set in the city of Sydney and the countryside to its immediate south, Kangaroo lays out the heady mix of intrigue and politics that confront English writer Richard Lovat Somers (probably an analogue for Lawrence himself) on his three-month visit.
Navigating his way through socialist activists and fascist paramilitaries (both of which he eschews), we see through Somers a glimpse of the violent and unstable inter-war period in Australia. Kangaroo will be particularly useful to history buffs and prospective visitors to the coast south of Sydney.
The Harp in the South by Ruth Park
The Harp in the South by Ruth Park is another book that has become an Australian classic. Set in the middle of the 20th Century the Harp in the South follows the trials and tribulations of the Irish Catholic Darcy family, living in the crowded slums of inner-city Sydney.
Controversial for its time, the Harp in the South explores complex themes of class, race and religion with a strong sense of social justice that almost prevented it from being published. Although written in 1948, Harp in the South still shines through with solid human decency and sense of place that makes it a must-read for any prospective visitors to Sydney.
The Eye of the Storm By Patrick White
Published by iconic Australian writer Patrick White, the Eye of the Storm is the story of an upper-class Sydney family and the ailing matriarch around which that family revolves.
The central character Elizabeth Hunter is a former socialite, living in comfortable Centennial Park in inner Sydney. Close to death, her two children travel to be by her side: her son, a knighted actor and her daughter, the wife of an aristocrat. Both in dire financial straits and both have an eye on her inheritance. In return, Elizabeth herself demonstrates the same destructive authority that she has wielded over her family for their entire lives.
Exploring the dual natures of class and family, the Eye of the Storm is a tragic comedy that has been compared to Shakespeare and Chekov and lovers of great literature will surely enjoy this book.
Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta
In contrast to the others on this list, Looking for Alibrandi is a far more modern novel. A coming of age story set firmly in its surroundings; the book follows the growth of a young Italian Australian girl making her way through her difficult teenage years. Navigating the social pressures of high school, friendships and relationships, a complicated relationship with her father and profound personal tragedy, we see the Young Josie rise to the task and grow despite her adversities.
A wildly popular book, Looking for Alibrandi was made into a feature film in 2000 and is perfect for young adults and a journey down memory lane for those still young at heart. Looking for Alibrandi is a great way to while away the hours to Sydney.
The Pillars by Peter Polites
The Pillars is a very modern Sydney story, one that deals with race, class and sexuality in the suburbs of Western Sydney. Penned by up and coming young writer Peter Polites, the Pillars follows Panos, a young writer of Greek origin who becomes caught up in the schemes of his landlord/sexual partner in his day-to-day mission to survive.
Thrust into the middle of an Islamophobic campaign against a proposed mosque and the destructive chaos of meth-dealing Panos finds himself in a world of moral ambiguity and outright darkness. The Pillars is an in-depth look into the way bigotry is constructed in a post-Cronulla Riots Sydney and a post-9/11 world. A satirical social commentary with an excellent sense of place. It is a must-read for the thoughtful thinker.
More Fiction Books Set in Sydney
We asked the members of our Sydney Expert community for their favourite novels set in Sydney and they came up with some great books that we have shared below.
Historical fiction set in Sydney
By no means a definitive list, but these ten historical novels set in Sydney and New South Wales are local favourites. Some have been made into movies, so check a site like JustWatch to find them in your region.
- Tell Morning This by Kylie Tennant – Sydney during WW2
- The Women in Black by Madeleine St John – Sydney 1959
- Dark Fires Shall Burn by Anna Westbrook – Mystery set Newtown after WW2
- Come in Spinner by Dymphna Cusack – Sydney at the end of WW2
- For Love Alone by Christina Stead – set in the Watson’s Bay area.
- The Timeless Land by Eleanor Dark- a trilogy set in the early years of settlement
- Poor Man’s Orange by Ruth Park – 1950s Surry Hills
- A Commonwealth of Thieves by Thomas Keneally – Sydney’s Early Settlement
- The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally – based on actual events that occurred at the turn of the century
- Beneath the Southern Cross by Judy Nunn – Sydney at settlement
Modern fiction set in Sydney
This list has some of my favourites and a few very well known Australian authors who have been winning awards and making bestseller lists around the world.
- Hell Has Harbour Views by Richard Beasley – a novel about a Sydney lawyer
- Liane Moriarty – all of her books are set in modern Sydney
- Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor – a modern story set on Sydney’s north shore and The Age book of the year.
- Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier – Darlinghurst crime gangs 1930s
- Not Meeting Mr Right by Anita Heiss – set in Coogee
- Puberty Blues by Kathy Lette & Gabrielle Carey – Sydney’s South in the 1970s
- The Empty Beach by Peter Corris – detective thriller set in Bondi (series)
- A Family Madness by Thomas Keneally – 1980s Sydney / WW2 Germany
- Fetish, Split and Covert by Author Tara Moss – Thrillers set in Sydney
- A Month of Sundays (and others) by Liz Byrski – set in the Blue Mountains
Find more books about Australia
- One of my favourite sites for inspiration Readings has a list of books set in Australian Cities.
- Good Reads also have a great list of books set in Sydney.
- A list of Miles Franklin award nominees and winners.
About the Author
Nathan Morgan-Hammer is a 26-year-old writer currently living in Newcastle, just north of Sydney. Between reading history, socialising with friends and exploring the great outdoors, he likes to write articles that help people better understand the world they live in.