This book was suggested by our Australian member* and I think all of us feel really pleased about it, because we found it a hugely enjoyable book. The Harp in the South (published 1948) is actually the second book in a trilogy, although it was written first. The success of the novel was followed by Poor Man’s Orange (1949 - last book in trilogy) and Missus, the first book in the trilogy but actually written very much later, in 1985 in fact. I had no idea until I read, in the aforementioned review, that the (Harp in South) book was the winner of a newspaper competition and serialised in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1947. It’s not difficult to believe it won, because it really is so very well wrritten; it perhaps also explains the slightly episodic nature of the narrative, which might be viewed as a flaw in the writing until you’re aware of that fact. The novel, perhaps surprisingly today, was seen as controversial when it first appeared, many arguing that Park had made up the slum life we experience through the lives of the Irish Catholic Darcy family who are central to her book. Park attested to the book’s authenticity, having herself lived in a tenement in the Surry Hills area of Sydney with her husband when first married.
The book is set at the time it was written, which certainly took this reader by surprise, probably because of the acute poverty experienced by its cast of characters. Initially (because the period isn’t stated), I thought it was set in the early 1930s or even earlier, but oblique references to Lana Turner etc put me on the right track. What really came across for me was the tolerance and care these people demonstrate for each other, how despite everything they somehow manage to uphold their standards of decency, despite the plodding grimness of their lives. It’s hard to believe (from our cosseted lives today) how a day’s outing to the seaside could have been seen as a momentous occasion. There is tragedy, ugliness and despair here, but there are also many light-hearted moments, and the book left me feeling exhilarated and uplifted. The writing itself is excellent and Park’s descriptions are always beautifully crafted.
Ruth Park (1917- 2010) was actually a New Zealander by birth and was no stranger to poverty, having grown up through the Depression there. She was a prolific writer, wrote several novels including many books for children and produced literally thousands of radio scripts. She died at the fine age of ninety-three.
If like me you were almost completely ignorant when it came to Antipodean literature, then add this title to your TBR pile. Or, just add it simply because it’s a very good book. I’m delighted to have found a new author and especially happy because I still have two parts of the trilogy left to go. Woohoo!
* Caffeine and Chapters review