Review of The Cambridge Companion to the Australian Novel, edited by Nicholas Birns and Louis Klee

A literary tapestry that unfolds like a vibrant mosaic, The Cambridge Companion to the Australian Novel offers a wide-ranging and insightful overview of this rich national literary tradition, inviting readers to wander through the intricate passages of Australian storytelling. Editors Nicholas Birns and Louis Klee have assembled an impressive array of contributors, including eminent scholars and emerging voices, to analyse the historical development and contemporary innovations of the Australian novel. For students new to the field as well as specialists, this volume serves as an indispensable guide to a body of fiction that has gained increasing global prominence.

Australian literature entered an era of international recognition in the 1970s and 1980s, with novelists such as Patrick White, Christina Stead and Peter Carey winning prizes and translations abroad. However, as the editors note, the Australian novel has a much longer and more complex history that predates its twentieth-century heyday. Indeed, the opening section of the book, ‘Contexts’, reminds us that the novel as a form both anticipated and shaped processes of colonisation in Australia. As Michael R. Griffiths explains, narratives such as Robinson Crusoe can be seen as enabling fictions for empire, imaginatively colonising Terra Australis even before Cook’s landing. He explores how the distorted representations of Indigenous characters and temporality in white Australian novels are complicit with settler colonialism. Several chapters show how the violence of settler colonialism has left indelible traces even in novels that do not directly feature Aboriginal characters.

Jeanine Leane offers a powerful reframing of this history, outlining strategies for reading Aboriginal writing on its own terms, eschewing the cultural chauvinism that dismissed early Indigenous poetry as merely ‘propagandist’. Her advocacy of ‘presencing’ provides a model for a two-way cultural exchange between settler critics and First Nations texts. Evelyn Araluen builds on this perspective in her nuanced discussion of law and literature, warning that the post-Mabo novel often obscures the structural continuity of Aboriginal dispossession. Further context is provided by Paul Giles’s transnational lens on nineteenth-century settler fiction, Brendan Casey’s excavation of Australian novels by ‘literary visitors’, and Emmett Stinson’s sociology of publishing – chapters that underline the intertwined material and symbolic dimensions of the field. These essays demonstrate scrupulous scholarship while also exploring the historical roots of each critical reading strategy.

The second section on ‘Authorships’ offers exemplary close readings of fiction by some of Australia’s most celebrated novelists. Fiona Morrison analyses Christina Stead’s modernism through tropes of oceanic mobility, a theme that resonates in later transnational writing. Chen Hong offers a fascinating examination of shifting representations of sexuality in Patrick White’s corpus. Louis Klee shows how Gerald Murnane’s idiosyncratic style experiments with narrative association. Brigid Rooney explores the communal households in Helen Garner’s fiction. Lynda Ng situates Alexis Wright’s activist vision within Aboriginal storytelling traditions. And Joseph Steinberg’s chapter on Kim Scott skillfully interweaves textual analysis with a material history of creative writing doctorates in Australia. Each essay exemplifies virtuosic scholarship while conveying a sense of each novelist’s distinctive innovations.

The final section, ‘Futures’, surveys important contemporary developments that are reshaping Australian fiction. Lachlan Brown considers representations of Western Sydney across generations of novelists. Declan Fry analyses Indigenous transnationalism through close readings of writers such as Ellen van Neerven. Michelle Cahill uses fictocriticism to challenge reductive tropes about culturally diverse voices. Nicholas Birns uncovers the dialogues of the Australian verse novel with global counterparts. Lesley Hawkes and Mark Piccini offer a nuanced examination of queerness and friendship in David Malouf and Christos Tsiolkas. Tony Hughes-D’Aeth explains how the climate crisis requires new forms of Anthropocene fiction. And Keyvan Allahyari argues for the unique epistemological value of refugee narratives such as No Friend But the Mountains. These chapters demonstrate rigorous scholarship while remaining attentive to the political and cultural urgency of each topic.

A particular strength of the collection lies in its multifaceted methodology, drawing from fields as diverse as settler-colonial studies, affect theory, sociology, queer theory and environmental humanities. This transdisciplinary approach reflects the diversity of contemporary Australian literature itself. Moreover, the Companion’s scope is admirable, encompassing emerging areas such as Western Sydney writing and refugee literature. Indigenous perspectives and authors are given due prominence throughout, countering the whiteness of previous Australian literary histories. The editors have also foregrounded innovative writers who may not be well known outside Australia, such as Gerald Murnane and Brian Castro, opening up new possibilities for transnational dialogue.

While The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature has become a standard reference text, this volume argues for the specificity of Australian fiction with its distinctive preoccupations. For readers seeking an introduction, the chronology provides a useful historical overview. Above all, however, the book offers a sophisticated cultural analysis that will interest specialists in the field. Its various approaches demonstrate the novel’s role as a window into wider social attitudes and changes. For these reasons, The Cambridge Companion to the Australian Novel will be essential reading for scholars, teachers and students exploring the past, present and future of this provocative national literature.

As a collection of essays contributed by a number of authors, however, like any mosaic, there are gaps. The thematic structure of the book makes it difficult to provide a comprehensive chronological overview of the Australian novel. The chapters jump around in time rather than following a clear historical trajectory. The colonial Australian novel is given rather limited space due to the emphasis on the modern and contemporary novel. Some chapters rely heavily on Western literary theory, such as the frequent references to Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of the literary field in Stinson’s chapter and the invocation of Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotope in Griffiths’s chapter. A wider range of theoretical approaches could provide additional perspectives. The Australian novel has always had an international dimension, so transnational connections and global contexts could be further explored beyond the settler-colonial framework.

In conclusion, The Cambridge Companion to the Australian Novel is a literary tour de force, a vibrant canvas painted with the brushstrokes of intellect and creativity. It is an exploration of the literary soul of a nation, an odyssey through time and culture. It may have some gaps, but it is a precious gem in the crown of Australian literary scholarship, a must-read for anyone seeking to unravel the intricacies of this enchanting national literature.

Published 18 December 2023 in Volume 38 No. 3. Subjects: Australian fiction, Australian novels & novelists.

Cite as: Su, Tiping. ‘Review of The Cambridge Companion to the Australian Novel, edited by Nicholas Birns and Louis Klee.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 38, no. 3, 2023, doi: 10.20314/als.8ec6ca8cba.

  • Tiping Su — Dr Tiping Su (苏锑平) is an Associate Professor of School of English Studies, Xi’an International Studies University, China.