5 Great Books Set in Tasmania That We Love

5 Great Books Set in Tasmania That We Love

Thursday, 9 June, 2022

If your only frame of reference for Tasmania is the (adorable, vicious) Tasmanian Devil, let us introduce you to the other fantastic things this heart-shaped island has to offer.

There’s gorgeous, rugged scenery, a pleasingly craggy coastline, a wind that screams and rumbles, and adorable animals. (Hello, wombats and platypuses!) Tasmania is just as extraordinary as you’d expect an island at the edge of the world to be.

Here are five books set in Tasmania that took us there on the page: true accounts of a rip-roaring sea adventure and the search for the lost Thylacine, a murder mystery set on the craggy coast, a family story set in a lonely lighthouse, and a coming-of-age novel that’s also a magical realism road trip.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Tasmania: The Heart-Shaped Island at the Edge of the World.


Wildlight - Robyn Mundy

> Robyn Mundy

If you’ve ever wished you could chuck your day-to-day into a rubbish bin and run away to an isolated lighthouse on a windswept island, this is the story for you. Set on Maatsuyker Island off the coast of Tasmania, it’s a coming-of-age story set at the edge of the world.

Maatsuyker Island is home to the southernmost lighthouse in Australia. It was the last lighthouse to be replaced by an automated light, but the island still needs caretakers. In real life, that duty is fulfilled by stalwart volunteers who do weather readings, tend the grounds, and keep an eye out for fires.

In the enthralling world of Wildlight, 16-year-old Steph has been dragged from Sydney to the island by her parents. Her twin brother recently died, and they are grieving hard. Back in the day, Steph’s grandfather was the lighthouse keeper. Now, her mom is convinced the family can heal from their loss by recreating the nostalgic glow of her childhood.

Steph disagrees. Strongly. And when she arrives on the island, she learns that there’s no cell signal and no internet. Although the book romps through some YA territory — young romance, parents who just don’t understand, the agony of homework — it also delves into the after-affects of tragedy and how families navigate their grief (or don’t).

Author Robyn Mundy is an adventurer who has volunteered on Maatsuyker Island. Her sensory descriptions of the plants and animals could only come from experiencing them firsthand — and she weaves them into the plot in meaningful ways. The weather is ever-present: in epic storms, in painfully beautiful days, in bone-chilling, sleepless nights. {more}

The wind squealed like a terrified child. Steph braced herself, angled her body as she rounded the corner after leaving the weather office. She was ready for the onslaught. She made her way down the path to the house, mindful of her footing. The screen door of the laundry caught a squall and flew back on its hinges. Steph struggled to close it. She peeled off her waterproofs and towel-dried her hair. She hung her clothes on the inside line to drip on the linoleum. The windows shook, translucent with salt, the Needles a blur of sea spray and mist. A squall raced across the ocean and laid down the waves. You could barely see halfway to the Cape. Steph put the kettle on. She searched the kitchen cupboards. The smell of mold seemed worse when you first opened things. — Robyn Mundy


Ten Rogues - Peter Grose

Ten Rogues
> Peter Grose

Imagine an island prison so brutal that you’d rather take your chances — in the open sea, aboard an unfinished boat, with a group of backstabbing blackguards — than spend another night on that island.

That was Sarah Island in the mid-1800s. A particularly unpleasant penal colony on the west side of Tasmania. It was buffeted day and night by vicious winds, sandwiched between open water patrolled by sharks and swaths of impenetrable rainforest. If you could somehow breach the prison walls, you might have been eaten by something come morning.

But one day in January of 1834, a motley mix of 10 prisoners banded together to steal an unfinished ship to escape the prison and sail 6700 miles across the Pacific to the coast of Chile. The tale of this six-week journey centers on our antihero Jimmy Porter who was, ‘by his own account, a killer and a thief.’ Yet, he’s also, somehow, a lovable rogue: brazen, brave, foolish, and foolhardy.

This is a ripping good yarn with solid history to ponder thrown aboard for good measure. {more}

It’s hard to know whether to like or dislike Jimmy Porter. He was, by his own account, a killer and a thief. He was also a deserting husband and father, and a tireless schemer and con man. His real persona bears a fair resemblance to one of those enduring heroes of popular fiction, the lovable rogue. He was a self-pitying liar, but then his survival more than once depended on his being economical with the truth. And if his survival led to a few clamorous bouts of self-promotion and fact-twisting… well, what are lovable rogues for? — Peter Grose


Carnivorous Nights - Margaret Mittlebach & Michael Crewdson

Carnivorous Nights
> Margaret Mittelbach, Michael Crewdson

Once upon a time, Tasmania was home to a marsupial that looked something like a large cat and a fox and a wolf, all put together. It was striped, like a tiger — dark streaks against a yellow-brown coat — with jaws that opened so wide, you might imagine it could carry a watermelon in its maw. Known as the thylacine (or Tasmanian Tiger), it roamed Australia for two million years. Then it was wiped out. Or was it?

This is the question that drives our intrepid and outstandingly curious heroes, Margaret Mittlebach and Michael Crewdson. In a quest to find a thylacine, they enlist an artist friend to join them and head off to Tasmania.

The team roams and rambles all over Tasmania. They encounter the forces of nature: weather and dangerous beasts (leeches! venomous ants!). They meet scientists and cryptozoologists, rangers and bushwhackers; there’s even a team trying to clone the thylacine. It’s a treasure trove of fascinating, perhaps eccentric, people with a shared mission.

You might come to this book for the adventure or because you, too, love weird science. But the lasting gift of this narrative is hope. It’s a strong argument for the wonder of nature and the joy in believing that, yes, there just might be a stealthy tiger family hiding out in the rugged hills of Tasmania. {more}

Alfred Russel Wallace was a naturalist, a contemporary of Darwin’s, who in 1856 had traveled from Bali to Lombok — a space of just fifteen watery miles — and been in for the surprise of his life. It was as if he had passed through a veil into another world. Species were more different between those two islands than they were across oceans. While Wallace primarily focused on birds in his study of the region, the most obvious difference to us was that the mammals on the other side of Wallace’s Line had pouches. Australasia was filled with odd creatures such as kangaroos and koalas. And Tasmania was home to some of the strangest of all of the region’s animals. Many species that had died out or were barely hanging on elsewhere survived on the island: the Tasmanian devil, the spotted-tailed quoll, the long-nosed potoroo. The idea that Tasmania could still be a haven for the thylacine was tantalizing. — Margaret Mittelbach & Michael Crewdson


Flames - Robbie Arnott

> Robbie Arnott

Pack a duffel and hop in the car. You’re about to embark on a magical realism road trip around the island of Tasmania. There will be ghosts and wombats, stunning landscapes, and challenging conversations along the way. Buckle up.

The story’s outline is deceptively simple: After her mother’s death and the subsequent crumbling of her family, 23-year-old Charlotte sets out on a journey around Tasmania. Mostly to escape her older brother Levi, but also, maybe, unintentionally, to find herself.

She visits beaches and a wombat farm and the snowy peaks of Cradle Mountain, and so many other places in nature, you could use this novel as a tour guide to scenic spots to visit in Tasmania.

The story is told through an exchange of letters and the records of a hard-boiled female detective. There’s also a personification of fire, a river rat who may or may not be a god, and a tender, life-changing friendship between a fisherman and a seal.

There are also gorgeous, vivid descriptions of scenery and weather — all of which make the setting come to life as a character but are also a metaphor for the emotions of the characters. This would be far too heady and literary were it not so readable and engaging; author Robbie Arnott is a magician of the highest order. {more}

Charlotte begins her offer: she will pay, she will work, she will scrub decks, she will clean fish, she will de-cling barnacles and limpets, she will hoist sails and shimmy down masts, if this boat will take her to Melaleuca. The grey man lifts a hand to say something, but Charlotte won’t be stopped. She will lasso albatrosses. She will harpoon whales. She will re-paint the yacht whatever colour he likes. She goes on and on and her breathing becomes a ragged, shallow tide… — Robbie Arnott


The Survivors - Jane Harper

The Survivors
> Jane Harper

Welcome to Evelyn Bay, Tasmania. The beach is lovely. The beers at the Surf and Turf are cold. And that shipwreck off the coast? It’s a divers’ dream. Just don’t ask too many questions about that storm 12 years ago.

When that epic storm ravaged Evelyn Bay, population 900, the town took a physical beating, but the emotional toll was worse. On that fateful day, a handful of tragedies struck. During the years since, most families swept their feelings under the proverbial rug and stayed. But not Kieran, the protagonist of our story. He took off as soon as he was old enough to make his own decisions. Now, a more mature man, he’s back in his hometown to help his mother — an expert at deflection — pack up their family home and move his father into a nursing home. This is not a good time for their family.

And then a lifeless body is discovered on the beach.

Memories are excavated. Secrets are revealed. Long overdue conversations finally take place — with devastating results.

None of the action could take place without the setting. You will know this beach town from the first few pages. You can smell the sea air and hear the roar of the waves — especially around the sea caves that loom large in the plot and the town’s mythology.

This is a gripping, well-constructed mystery, an ideal beach read to whisk you away to a compelling destination. But that suspense story is also a clever decoy for the real story: an exploration of guilt, grief, and how even the most beautiful place can be haunted by collective memory. {more}

The Surf and Turf looked exactly the same as it had three years ago. Ten years ago, even. One whole side of the weatherboard building was still adorned by an outline of a giant crayfish, fashioned entirely from sun-bleached shells glued to the wall. A painted sign at the entrance read: IN HERE FOR FISH FROM THERE, with an uneven arrow pointing to the ocean that lay a stone’s throw from the outdoor dining deck. — Jane Harper

Top image courtesy of Laya Clode/Unsplash.

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With its craggy coastline, screaming wind, gorgeously rugged scenery, and adorable (deadly) animals, Tasmania is just as fantastical as you'd expect an island at the edge of the world to be. Batten down the hatches.
There are so many reasons to visit Tasmania — rugged and sandy beaches, majestic hiking trails, world-class cuisine, and fascinating history. But if we're 100% honest, we want to go for the cute-and-cuddly wombats.

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