Historical fiction set in Australian cities

We love historical fiction and many of our favourite Australian reads in this genre are set in rural areas – such as Alexis Wright’s expansive and inventive Carpentaria and Lucy Treloar’s vivid and immersive Salt Creek. Here we share a collection of historical reads that transport readers way back into the earlier days of the country’s cities.

Melbourne, Victoria

The Portrait of Molly Dean by Katherine Kovacic – This mystery story is inspired by a real unsolved murder. Art dealer Alex Clayton stumbles across a portrait of Molly Dean, an artist’s muse who was brutally slain in the 1930s, and sets out to uncover the truth.

Shadowboxing by Tony Birch – In these 10 linked stories, Birch beautifully captures the mood and turmoil of 1960s Fitzroy in sparse and poignant prose.

The Art of the Engine Driver by Steven Carroll – Set over a single evening in the 1950s, The Art of the Engine Driver is the first book of Carroll’s much-loved Glenroy novels and introduces characters you can then follow over the coming years.

Nine Days by Toni Jordan – With a structure that revolves around nine pivotal moments of nine different characters, Jordan’s novel opens in Richmond 1939, and follows the fortunes of one family through to the present day.

My Brother Jack by George Johnston – In this Miles Franklin award-winning classic, two brothers grow up in a patriotic suburban Melbourne household during the First World War, and go on to lead very different lives.

Canberra, Australian Capital Territory

Cold Light by Frank Moorhouse – This is the third book of Moorhouse’s smartly, absorbing Edith trilogy, though it can also be read as a standalone. Set during the 1950s, Edith returns to Australia to settle in Canberra with ambitions to become the nation’s first female ambassador.

Document Z by Andrew Croome – This taut and atmospheric novel of political espionage and intrigue is inspired by the true story of the Petrov defection in April, 1954. This real-life drama was one of the most significant events of the Cold War era.

Sydney, New South Wales

The Harp in the South by Ruth Park – Park’s first novel caused some controversy at the time of its publication for its honest portrayal of taboo topics (including abortion and poverty). The story follows a Catholic Irish Australian family living ‘amid the brothels, grog shops and run-down boarding houses’ of Sydney’s Surry Hills.

Dark Fires Shall Burn by Anna Westbrook – Here is another novel inspired by the true events surrounding an unsolved murder – this time in Sydney’s Newtown during the aftermath of WWII.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville – Drawing on extensive research and set during the earliest days of white settlement in the Sydney region, Grenville imagines the day-to-day of what might have happened when Europeans colonised land already inhabited by Aboriginal people.

The Women in Black by Madeleine St John – St John is known as a superb novelist of contemporary manners in this wry and witty novel, she follows the lives of several women who work on the second floor of a Sydney department store, in the Ladies' Cocktail Frocks section, during the late 1950s.

Brisbane, Queensland

Johnno by David Malouf – This novel follows two unlikely friends, Dante and Johnno, through their childhood and into their early adulthood. It’s a story about growing up, as well as a bittersweet portrayal of tropical Brisbane in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Slow Natives by Thea Astley – This is Astley’s fourth novel and her second to win the Miles Franklin! Here, she interweaves the experiences of multiple characters from suburban Brisbane.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton – This captivating and romantic mystery was inspired by Morton’s family history, as well as her own Brisbane home and the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, and spans a century.

Darwin, Northern Territory

Maestro by Peter Goldsworthy – When teenager Paul Crabbe begins piano lessons with the enigmatic Eduard Keller, an Austrian émigré with a shadowy past, it changes the course of his life. This novel brings to life the atmosphere of post-WW2 Darwin.

Territory by Judy Nunn – This sweeping saga that is at once a family epic, and the story of Darwin itself, from the day it was bombed by Japanese fighter planes during WW2 to the fury of Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Day in 1974.

Perth, Western Australia

The Golden Age by Joan London – London’s eloquent story of first love takes place in a convalescent home for children afflicted by polio. The location is based on the real life Golden Age centre that actually existed in Perth in the 1950s.

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton – This is a quintessential Australian classic set during the mid-twentieth century. After two separate catastrophes, two very different families leave the country for the bright lights of Perth and end up under the same roof.

The Young Desire It by Kenneth Mackenzie – First published in 1937, this lyrical coming-of-age tale unfolds in an all-male boarding school on the outskirts of Perth. The story is partially inspired by the author’s own experiences and tackles some challenging territory.

That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott – Scott’s third novel is actually not set in Perth but we’ve included here as it still does explore the early days of a Western Australian city – that of Albany. Scott won multiple literary awards (including the Miles Franklin) for this fascinating, playful exploration of the first decades of the nineteenth century.

Adelaide, South Australia

From the Wreck by Jane Rawson – This story entwines the lives of a shipwreck survivor in 1850s South Australia with that of an alien cephalopod, crafting a moving portrait of trauma in the process.

The Year it All Ended by Kirsty Murray – Set across Australia and Europe, this young adult novel opens on 11 November 1918, Armistice Day, and explores the devastating aftermath of the First World War on a single family.

Hobart, Tasmania

When the Night Comes by Favel Parrett – Set during the 1980s, this novel follows Isla, a vulnerable young girl whose family has recently relocated to Hobart, and Bo, a Danish sailor who works aboard the Nella Dan – a cargo ship that services Antarctica.

Bridget Crack by Rachel Leary – Opening in 1826 Hobart town, this gripping tale of a female convict on the run and struggling to survive casts a new light over Australia’s obsession with bushrangers.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping by Richard Flanagan – 38 and pregnant, Sonja Buloh returns home to confront her estranged and abusive father and lay their difficult past to rest. The story flits between Sonja’s return in the 1990s, and her childhood in the 1950s.