D’Arcy Niland was a writer dedicated to the great art of short-story writing, and during his relatively short life (1917-1967) he managed to produce over five hundred. He left school at fourteen to help support a large family, and seems to have lived a life as an itinerant worker in much the same way as Mac Macauley does in The Shiralee. He had been encouraged to write by the nuns at his school and he seems to have self-educated himself whilst on the road. He married New Zealander Ruth Park in 1942. She, like Niland, had done some journalism, and they decided they would try and pursue their ambition to write full-time. They had five children together and they both won various literary prizes to support their writing. In 1952 Niland was awarded £600 by the Commonwealth Literary fund to write a novel, and the result was The Shiralee (published 1955). It has never been out of print since and has been translated into many languages.
What did I think of The Shiralee? It is a very fine novel. Niland possessed a short-story writer’s eye for capturing detail that might otherwise pass as mundane or fleeting. It’s not a very thick book but what it lacks in size is made up for in weight. I laughed and wept and genuinely felt a little sad when I finished it, simply because there were no more pages to turn. Niland was a very good writer, as was Ruth Park, whose Harp in the South trilogy, set in the slums of Sydney and partly based on what they observed from living there, is equally worth reading.
Mac Macauley, the book’s main character, is walking the backroads of New South Wales, always on the look out for work, his four year old daughter Buster, the shiralee (burden) of the title, alongside or trailing behind. Macauley is hard and uncompromising, like the land and the life he has always known. He bumps into friends and enemies along the way but this is a story about a man and a child, about loyalty and love. The characters he meets are wonderful, rich, poignant, sometimes spiteful, occasionally violent, but most often surprisingly generous and kind-hearted. I think Tommy Goorianawa, Beauty Kelly, Luke and Bella Sweeney, Wigley, Sam Bywater and the wonderful Desmond have established themselves in my psyche just as firmly as Ham Peggotty, Yossarian or George and Lennie. This is an exceptionally good book, the writing is wonderful. I would go so far as to say that it’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, and it will most certainly be making my Favourites shelf on Goodreads. I urge everyone to read it.
Thanks to my clever Twitter book club friends for suggesting another great book I would probably never have discovered without them! Having both read it, the wife and I are now very keen to trek up to London to see the Australian Impressionists exhibition.