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Melbourne’s diverse and adaptable landscape has been used by many authors who have chosen to set their novels in the city and its surrounds. Culture Trip Melbourne recommends these five very different novels based on their popularity and the fact that they showcase the city across different eras and within various contexts. Witness post-apocalyptic Melbourne, a suburban backyard, the inner-city communal culture of the 1970s, a strict ladies college, and Bourke Street in the 1880s with this must-read list for the Melbourne-focused bibliophile.
Inspired by her diary entries, acclaimed author Helen Garner’s first novel Monkey Grip follows protagonist Nora and her daughter Gracie as they move through a series of share houses in Melbourne. Nora’s love interest Javo is a heroin addict who drifts in and out of her life, but despite the uncertainties in their relationship neither are able to loosen the monkey grip. Set in the mid-1970s the book takes place in inner-city Melbourne and features locations including Bourke Street and the Fitzroy Baths. Published in 1977, the book was eventually turned into a film of the same name.
Set in suburban Melbourne, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas is a conversation-starter of a novel that took Australia by storm when it was published in 2008. The narrative follows the consequences after a man (Harry) slaps his friend’s three-year-old son (Hugo) who has been misbehaving at a barbeque. The novel is told in third person, through eight different perspectives – each with a chapter of their own and each with differing reactions to the slap. The story was adapted into two mini-series in Australia and the United States.
Published in 1957, this post-apocalyptic novel is set in 1963 following the nuclear World War III, which has wiped out life in the northern hemisphere. Melbourne remains one of few habitable cities on Earth, but as global air currents sweep the nuclear fallout to the southern hemisphere, those in Melbourne must face the realities of impending death. The New York Times called Nevil Shute’s On the Beach ‘the most haunting evocation we have of a world dying of radiation after an atomic war.’ On the Beach has been adapted into two films, the first, made in 1959, stars Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire.
This uplifting novel by Melbourne writer Lisa Lang takes place in the 1880s where an eccentric entrepreneur by the name of Edward William Cole is building Cole’s Book Arcade, a three-storey fun house in Bourke Street full of oddities including a giant squid, talking birds, a brass band, a Chinese tea salon and thousands of books. Edward is convinced that by following an unconventional path he can change society and leave behind wonderful legacy. Utopian Man is a charming book which celebrates the historical Marvellous Melbourne as well as the ingenuity of Melbourne residents.
Considered an Australian classic, this coming of age novel by Henry Handel Richardson – a pseudonym for Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson – is set in a Melbourne Ladies College in the 1890s, most likely modelled after the Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Melbourne. The narrative follows Laura Tweedle Rambotham who arrives at the school from a small country town and refuses to change her ways in the face of conformity. Published in 1910, The Getting of Wisdom was adapted into a film in 1978.