Australian literature of the 1960s

Riders in the Chariot – Patrick White (1961)

The sixth novel by one of Australia’s most celebrated writers was also his second to win the prestigious Miles Franklin Award. Part spiritual allegory, part suburban drama, it is a daring and ambitious novel that still stands as a towering achievement. Although it has not endured in the public consciousness in the same way as Voss and Tree of Man, it remains one of his most respected novels.

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Wake in Fright – Kenneth Cook (1961)

This spare, no-holds-barred assault on Australian drinking culture remains as powerful today as when it was first written. It describes a harrowing descent from the civilised to the primal, a journey aided and abetted by characters at once menacing and all too familiar. A book that demands to be read and reread. Very highly recommended.

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Careful, He Might Hear You – Sumner Locke Elliott (1963)

A touching story of a child caught in a custody battle that he doesn’t understand. Ostensibly told through the eyes of the child, the narrative always retains a delicate balance between a child’s innocence and the complex motives of adults. A joy to read and a triumph in style. The film version is a capable adaptation, but be sure to make the book your priority. Careful, you might miss it…

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The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony – Hal Porter (1963)

A classic Australian autobiography of childhood and adolescence. Presented as a series of seemingly disconnected episodes, each is recounted with a deliberate eye to its relevance in the shaping of the adult. Hal Porter’s observations, and how he paints his array of characters, make for a hugely entertaining book. It is a work of great humour that has the power to invoke your own memories as you read. Hunt down a copy if you can. It’s worth it.

My Brother Jack – George Johnston (1964)

Believe the hype. This is one of the great Australian novels. George Johnston has crafted a semi-autobiographical novel in which the title character, Jack, stands as a counterpoint to his own life. Jack is the hard-working, hard-drinking lad-about-town, whose life trajectory is fuelled by impulse. David, the author’s alter-ego, is an introverted intellectual. Although David attains material and vocational success, his life remains empty. By contrast, Jack’s life is bristling with vitality, even though his ambitions are often thwarted. But the coming of war brings significant changes for both. A must-read.

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Tourmaline – Randolph Stow (1965)

A very strange novel that falls chronologically between two masterpieces: To The Islands and The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea. The story centres on a water diviner who arrives in an isolated and dormant mining town. The man arrives without a past, and he immediately becomes a figure of awe and mystery to the town’s inhabitants. What they want, need and expect of him continues to evolve, and it takes the narrative into unexpected territory. A book that defies categories and continues to generate debate to this day.

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Wild Cat Falling – Mudrooroo (1965)

The debut novel of Colin Johnson, better known by his pen-name of Mudrooroo, was a bestseller when first released. The unnamed protagonist has just been released from Fremantle prison, and his short but colourful life is fleshed out through a series of flashbacks as he drifts through town. His interactions with people are stilted and uncomfortable, and the reader is left in no doubt that he will remain an outsider. While the story alludes to the former government’s policies on Aboriginal assimilation, it has since been compromised by the controversy regarding Mudrooroo’s Aboriginal heritage. Despite this, the book remains powerful and plays a significant role in Australia’s literary history.

The Slow Natives – Thea Astley (1965)

The Slow Natives was the second of Thea Astley’s four Miles Franklin Award winners. Set in suburban Brisbane, it is written in a cool prose that reflects the emotional passivity of its characters. As an attack on middle class values, this book stands as a barometer of the cultural upheaval that defined the sixties. A wonderful introduction to the work of one of Australia’s most celebrated writers.

Borrow Thea Astley’s novel It’s Raining in Mango.

Borrow Thea Astley’s novel A Descant for Gossips from IndyReads.

The Watch Tower – Elizabeth Harrower (1966)

A psychological journey set in the northern suburbs of Sydney in the 1940s. Two sisters are abandoned by their mother at a very young age. As they pass adolescence, the need to anchor themselves to something stable becomes a driving force. This something arrives in the form of Felix. What at first seems to be their safe harbour degenerates into something quite different after Felix marries the elder sister and begins to play vicious mind games. Despite achieving critical acclaim throughout her career, Elizabeth Harrower remains largely undiscovered by contemporary readers.

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Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay (1967)

This familiar story continues to capture the imagination of the nation. Since its release, the book has been adapted twice for the screen: as a TV miniseries in 2018, and most notably as a film in 1975. This work of fiction presents itself as fact, and documents the disappearance of a group of schoolgirls during a picnic at the turn of the last century. Posited as a mystery without a resolution, it has prompted much debate, both academically and with the reading public. A final chapter was released posthumously explaining the mystery, but most readers have preferred the ambiguity of the original ending.

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Borrow the TV miniseries.