It was bound to happen sooner or later.
I was about halfway through Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky when I realised what that little nagging voice in the back of my thoughts had been trying to tell me all week:
I was reading the wrong book.
The Sheltering Sky was published in 1949. I should have been reading Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South, published in 1948. Oops?
I’m not entirely sure what happened. I think it might have been an old-fashioned case of mistaken identity: both novels are Popular Penguins. Perhaps I just reached out for the warm, inviting orange and cream cover and…picked up the wrong book?
I realised my mistake last Friday night. I always begin my reviews on Sunday afternoon. Which meant that I had to read The Harp in the South in record time.
I greedily devoured the novel in a series of sittings last weekend, finally closing the cover as the sun set on Sunday evening. It was a beautiful, intense experience.
(As to why it’s taken me this long to finally get my review online? That’s another story entirely. When I started blogging about books, I thought actually reading books would be the difficult bit. I was very, very mistaken. Reading is the easy bit.)
Late though it may be, here’s my review:
The Harp in the South
by Ruth Park
Published in 1948
I approached The Harp in the South without expectation or obligation. With a clear, open mind, I plunged into the pages of this novel knowing only what was written on the back cover. And I emerged utterly stunned.
Within the space of a mere two hundred and twenty pages, The Harp in the South had knocked me over, trampled my poor heart, lifted me up and held me in its warm arms…before knocking me back into the dirt to begin the whole process over again.
The Harp in the South is a unique achievement. It’s emotional, but never cloying; it sparkles with genius, and it’s written with such arresting lyricism it will leave you in awed silence.
By all rights, The Harp in the South shouldn’t work. It’s not a traditional novel, but a series of sketches, loosely woven together, with the barest hint of a plot binding each scene to the next. It shouldn’t work – but it does. And it does so much more than merely work – it sings.
The novel is set in the slums of Sydney’s Surry Hills, where the Darcy family of “twelve-and-a-half” Plymouth Street seem destined to misfortune. Surrounded by brothels, violence and devastating poverty, Mumma and Hughie Darcy raise their two young girls, Roie and Dolour, in a tumbledown, dirty house crowded with tenants. Although the family struggle for every cent, Hugh spends most of his spare time down at the pub with his mates, leaving little money for Mumma to provide the family’s food and clothing. It’s Mumma’s strength that draws the family together.
Against this stark background, nineteen-year-old Roie, the couple’s eldest child, is just beginning her life as a woman. Dolour is selected to take part in a radio quiz and doesn’t have anything to wear. Mumma mourns the loss of her boy, Thady, who disappeared without a trace while playing outside the family’s home seven years ago; she still searches for his face amongst every crowd. And Hugh, fiercely protective of his family, but essentially weak, enters the lottery, hoping to turn around the family’s luck.
It’s not the plot, but the novel’s characters that bind the episodes that make up The Harp in the South together so beautifully. Ruth Park describes her characters with such a devastating kindness. We see them at their worst, but Park lets them keep their dignity. Even when Hughie, in a moment of weakness, spends the family’s money at the pub, Park conveys his intense shame with a forlorn elegance. She never judges or condemns her characters – she just shows us the sad truth.
There’s a certain uneasiness about The Harp in the South that’s difficult to define. For every moment of happiness, there’s the threat of something awful waiting around the corner:
“Roie and Tommy wandered off early, into the shadow of the alleys, emerging to look astonished at the stars, so bright and enchanted tonight that they threw shadows. Once they came across, in a deserted street, a blind cat with opal-white eyes, walking around and around in a ceaseless circle, mewing pitifully. They stood and watched it moving in its endless darkness. (…) Then a man came briskly out of a gate, seized the cat by the hind legs and thumped it six or seven times against a lamp-post. He threw the limp body into the gutter, and rubbed his hands down his trousers.
‘Can’t put up with that yowling all night,’ he said cheerily to them as he walked inside again.” (p. 77)
Hope and horror; The Harp in the South veers wildly between the two extremes. Later in the novel, the double bed Roie and Dolour share is turned upside down, to discover a black mass of bugs underneath, like big, purple grapes, fat with blood: it’s the perfect metaphor for this novel. There’s something dreadful lurking beneath everything.
Ruth Park certainly knows how to create an uneasy atmosphere. She also knows how to create characters that are so realistic, you can practically hear the words as they emerge from their mouths, down to the distant lilt of their half-forgotten Irish accents. But what left me shaking my head in awe was Ruth Park’s style. Her writing exudes such a stunning lyricism – it’s enough to knock the air from your lungs.
“The road curved upwards and down in a long, graceful bow. The sky was purest blue, not convolvulus, or harebell, or cobalt, nor the happy vapour-laded blue of the sky over the seal; it was though the air had at last become colour, burnished by the dauntless dying sun, and scoured to brilliance by the vast sandy winds from the desert inland” (p. 19)
The Harp in the South is such a surprising, unconventional novel. It’s a sad song written in an optimistic key. Sure, it’s a little sentimental…but for me, this only added to the the novel’s charm. As I turned the final page, one question lingered in my thoughts: will these characters ever escape their poverty, or are they doomed to live this way forever?
They’ve become a part of my life now, these characters. They’re quite real to me. I wish them all the best.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Yes. The Harp in the South is deserving of its reputation as an Australian classic. It’s a triumphant piece of writing.
(Okay – so maybe, technically speaking, this isn’t really an Australian novel. Ruth Park was actually from New Zealand. But we’re more than happy to claim her as one of our own…)
In a word: