This story is part of the June 19 edition of Sunday Life, which is a special reading issue. See all 14 stories.

From a barbecue gone awry to the devastation of European settlement, there’s no shortage of heartbreak, havoc or hilarity in Australian literature.

Here, we share 25 Australian novels that have made their mark in the past 25 years. From those that have broken sales records, courted controversy and challenged the status quo, to quiet achievers that have slipped off our reading lists, each of these novels are worthy of a place on our bookshelves.

Literature has always been a way to understand who we are as a nation, and the last quarter of a century in novels shows how bold, innovative, brave and important our storytellers are.

The Booklist is a weekly newsletter for book lovers from books editor Jason Steger. Get it delivered every Friday.

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The Essence of the Thing, Madeleine St John (1997)

The first novel by an Australian woman to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize follows young publicist Nicola’s attempt to start again after her boyfriend unexpectedly asks her to move out of their London flat. A seemingly simple set-up enables a moving examination of relationships, love and loss. It has all the trademark wit, heart and elegance we associate with the same author of the novel-turned-movie The Women in Black.

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Too Many Men, Lily Brett (1999)

This international bestseller, often described as the author’s masterpiece, follows successful businesswoman Ruth Rothwax’s return to Poland with her father, an Auschwitz survivor living in Melbourne. The story is recounted from their perspectives, although the ghost of a dead Nazi, Rudolf HÖss, makes some interesting interventions. It’s a heartbreaking tale told with a tender comedic touch, and one that deserves to be better known.

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True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey (2000)

Ned Kelly makes his own myths for once in the Booker Prize-winning novel which, despite the promise of its title, is a fictional take on the life of Australia’s most famous bushranger. Whether Kelly usually interests you as a subject or not, he’s never felt so alive as in this story, which is a masterclass in voice, language and character – for example the way Carey’s Kelly always uses the word “adjectival” as a substitute for swearing.

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Drylands, Thea Astley (2000)

Along with Tim Winton, Astley has won the most Miles Franklin awards, including for her 14th and final novel Drylands. A dark portrait of decline in drought-stricken outback Australia, the story follows newsagent Janet Deakin as she attempts to write “a book for the world’s last reader”. The themes of natural disaster, poverty, racism, small-mindedness and the economic crisis faced by many rural towns remain as relevant today.

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Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks (2001)

Set in 1666 in a tiny northern English village hit by the bubonic plague, Brooks’ debut novel was inspired by a true story. We watch through the eyes of young housemaid Anna Frith as the desperate villagers choose to isolate themselves and turn to witch-hunting and sorcery to survive the plague. Year of Wonders has made a welcome return to readers’ shelves in the past two years and is a good re-frame of what we’ve endured with COVID-19.

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Of a Boy, Sonya Hartnett (2002)

The mysterious disappearance of three siblings who set out for ice-cream and don’t return is the backdrop of a story told from the perspective of nine-year-old Adrian and set in Australian suburbia in 1977. Lonely, shy and desperate for love, Adrian has a distressing family life. He is most shocked after the trio disappear, “that an ordinary child could be worth taking or wanting, a desirable thing”. It’s sad, beautiful and poignant.

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The Bride Stripped Bare, Nikki Gemmell (2003)

Raw but real, explicit but exquisite, The Bride Stripped Bare caused great chatter about the author’s identity when it was first published anonymously. The unflinching story consists of a series of diary entries written by an unnamed housewife as she recounts the lessons she has learnt. The seemingly contented narrator embarks on a journey of sexual awakening when she has an affair with a man she meets at a library group.

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The Great Fire, Shirley Hazzard (2003)

More than two decades after publishing The Transit of Venus, this story set in the devastating aftermath of the Second World War was the author’s fourth and final novel. The tale starts with British war veteran Adrian Leith, who is sent to occupied Japan to document the effects of the war two years after the bombing of Hiroshima. The novel won the US National Book Award for Fiction and the Miles Franklin award.

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The Secret River, Kate Grenville (2005)

The story follows convict William Thornhill who is sent to the fledgling colony in Australia. After he is pardoned, he attempts to set up on land on the banks of the Hawkesbury River with his wife, Sal, and children. But it was never his land to take, and tensions between the Indigenous owners and white colonisers simmer and boil. The book provoked controversy on several fronts on publication, including ruffling the feathers of historians.

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The Book Thief, Markus Zusak (2005)

More than 16 million copies sold, more than 500 weeks leading the The New York Times bestseller list, translated into more than 60 languages and transformed into a Hollywood blockbuster – of course The Book Thief would appear on a list of novels that made their mark. Set in Nazi Germany, young Liesel discovers a passion for reading when she finds The Gravedigger’s Handbook in the snow. A book about love, and the love of books.

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Carpentaria, Alexis Wright (2006)

It’s hard to compare Carpentaria to any other novel, so it’s probably best to just read it. Alexis Wright brings her shimmering style to the fictional town of Desperance, in the Gulf country of north-western Queensland, where the Phantom family battles with a renegade mob, white officials and a multinational mining corporation. Wright, who is a member of the Waanyi nation, became the first Indigenous woman to win the Miles Franklin award.

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Breath, Tim Winton (2008)

Before you cry “what about Cloudstreet or The Riders?“, I’ll remind you that this list only extends to the past 25 years. But if you love those novels, you’ll find yourself in familiar terrain in Breath as it delves into classic Winton themes of male friendship, adolescence and the coast. It’s a story full of tension; reading it feels as though you are on your surfboard on top of the wave just waiting for it to crash down.

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A Fraction of the Whole, Steve Toltz (2008)

The first in what Toltz calls his “trilogy of fear novels”, A Fraction of the Whole follows the adventures of the outlandish Dean family. It’s told from the perspective of Jasper Dean, who reflects from his prison cell on how he, his paranoid father Martin and his outlaw Uncle Terry managed to upset an entire continent. The Booker-shortlisted novel is laugh-out-loud funny, brimming with the dark humour that has become Toltz’s trademark.

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The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas (2008)

The scene is familiar to many: snags on the backyard barbecue, family and friends mingle, drinks are poured. But in this novel, everything stops when a man slaps a misbehaving child who is not his. We see how the moment ripples through the lives of eight people who were at the barbecue. It’s a masterful examination of family, suburbia and cultural identity, and well deserves its status as one of Australia’s best-loved books.

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Jasper Jones, Craig Silvey (2009)

This coming-of-age classic follows bookish teenager Charlie Bucktin, who becomes tied to outcast Jasper Jones through a terrible secret. Set in 1965 in the fictional regional mining town of Corrigan, the bestselling novel is a tale of young love, friendship, small-town mentality, race and growing up, and has been described as Australia’s answer to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

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That Deadman Dance, Kim Scott (2010)

The novel explores first contact between the Noongar people and European whalers and sealers anchored on the coastline of southern Western Australia, the so-called “friendly frontier”. If The Secret History showed the disastrous consequences of colonisation in the Hawkesbury region, Scott’s novel stands apart in its note of hopefulness, found in the cultural exchanges between white settlers and Indigenous people.

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Questions of Travel, Michelle de Kretser (2013)

This epic Miles Franklin-winning novel follows two very different stories: Laura, a restless tourist who travels around the world before returning to Sydney to work for a travel-guide publisher; and Ravi, who flees to Australia on a tourist visa after his wife and son are murdered in Sri Lanka. Their individual struggles are used to explore much bigger themes of dislocation, cultural difference, exile, tourism and travel.

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (2014)

The author has described his bestselling, Booker Prize-winning novel as “the book I had to write, if I was to keep on writing”. Flanagan’s father was a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp and a survivor of the Thai-Burma “Death Railway”. The novel is narrated by war veteran Dr Dorrigo Evans, who is haunted by his time at the camp. Our reviewer at the time described the novel as one of “mordant gusto, lyricism and astonishing tenacity”.

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Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty (2014)

This was the first novel by an Australian author to debut at number one on The New York Times bestseller list, and has since been turned into an award-winning HBO miniseries starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern. Five women are embroiled in a murder investigation after a school fundraiser goes awry. It’s such set-ups that have seen Moriarty sell more than 20 million copies of her books.

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The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood (2015)

A feminist horror novel that speaks perfectly to the rage and reckoning of the #MeToo movement. Ten young women blamed for sex scandals with powerful men have been drugged, kidnapped and taken to a remote facility where they are guarded by vicious jailers and a “nurse”. Forced to shave their heads and wear uniforms, the women find ways to fight back. The story has the mythic feel of a fable, yet remains all too raw and recognisable.

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The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose (2016)

It took Rose more than a decade to write this story, inspired by Marina Abramović‘s work The Artist Is Present at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It was the Tasmanian author’s fourth adult novel and catapulted her into the limelight, winning the Stella Prize and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction. It follows film composer Arky Levins, captivated by Abramović’s 75-day performance where she invited museum visitors to sit in a chair opposite her.

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Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko (2018)

With her father dying, Kerry Salter returns to the home town she has spent much of her life avoiding. She heads to Bundjalung country but the 24 hours she promised she would not exceed disappear. Family tensions escalate as the Salters fight to stop the development of their river, and an affair with a white man adds to complications. Too Much Lip brings deft humour to serious subjects, including dispossession and substance abuse.

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Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton (2018)

The heartfelt semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale became Australia’s fastest-selling debut when it was published and has now sold more than 750,000 copies. Set in the working-class suburbs of Brisbane, it follows Eli Bell as he deals with his criminal babysitter, heroin-dealing stepfather, drug-addled mother, mute brother and lost father. Read the book now to get ahead of the screen adaptation currently in production for Netflix.

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The Yield, Tara June Winch (2019)

This novel about Indigenous language swept the awards pool, claiming the hat-trick of the Prime Minister’s Literary award, the Miles Franklin award and the Christina Stead Prize. The story follows August Gondiwindi as she returns for the funeral of her grandfather, Albert “Poppy” Gondiwindi, to the fictional Australian town of Massacre Plains. Approaching his death, Poppy, has been compiling a dictionary of Wiradjuri words.

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Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (River of Dreams), Anita Heiss (2022)

The Murrumbidgee River devastates the town of Gundagai in 1952, but Wiradyuri girl Wagadhaany is rescued from the torrent by her father. While she’s lucky to survive, her father’s act of heroism doesn’t stop his daughter from being sent to serve a white family far from her home. Engrossing and empathetic, it’s a story of loss, family, Country and identity, and the first Australian commercial fiction release to feature an Aboriginal language title.

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The Booklist is a weekly newsletter for book lovers from books editor Jason Steger. Get it delivered every Friday.