Jennifer Byrne, host of ABC’s The Book Club, announced this week that she would be leaving the review show she’s fronted with Marieke Hardy and Jason Steger for 11 years following the Christmas special.
Proud of the show’s popularity, Byrne says it’s been bittersweet decision, describing novels as “the best non-human thing in my life,” alongside horses.
“It was always really important to me that we last,” she says. “I didn’t want it to be a two-year wonder. I wanted to establish that one, there are readers, and two, that they will watch television and three, books do belong there. They’re a core part of life.”
While the former journalist had been best friends with Steger for decades and shared similar tastes in books, Byrne’s regular run-ins with Hardy became the stuff of legends.
“I never deliberately chose something I suspected she would hate,” Byrne swears. “She’s a wilful woman, and it became part of the appeal of the show, I know. ‘My god, those girls, they hate each other’ and of course we don’t, we love each other dearly. We just have very different taste.”
Hardy still gives Byrne a hard time for buying Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. “Marieke is still going at me, thinking I’m some fascist,” Byrne laughs.
“Last year she brought Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry and waxed lyrical in her way and I just thought it was really bad. That was a fairly fraught conversation.”
Byrne seems to have a thing for Scottish authors, listing Harry Potter scribe JK Rowling and crime writer Ian Rankin as personal favourite guests, but it was American author Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian novel The Road that made the biggest impression. It almost didn’t make it onto the show.
“I remember reading it over a holiday and saying to my husband [Andrew Denton] ‘this is one of the greatest books ever, but it’s too dark. I can’t do this. It’s going to be too much of a downer for the audience,’ and he said to me, and it really stuck with me ‘if you can’t do the best book, then what good are you?’
“Bringing those challenging books, that was really important and rewarding.”
That includes last year’s The North Water by English author Ian McGuire, which Byrne describes as like “The Revenant of whaling.”
“Ghastly things go on and there’s blood and guts and murder,” she says.
“No one had ever heard of it or the author when I brought it to The Club because I was just crazy about it. It’s very violent, with extremely bad language.
“All these reasons why you shouldn’t do it, but I thought it was just a brilliant bit of writing.”
Causing a run on bookshops, Byrne also championed Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf.
“Unknown virtually in Australia, even though he’s won awards in America, it just went ballistic,” she recalls.
“People were coming up to me in supermarkets and train stations and saying ‘this book is beautiful’ and that’s a thrill.”
For Byrne, connecting readers and authors was the joy of The Book Club. “Once it’s in someone’s brain, a book lives. We never forget.”