The Harp in the South
(Penguin Modern Classics)
"The old plane trees, their boughs mutilated so that they had grown into crippled knobs of intertwined twigs; their bark splashed with white, their wide leaves yellowing, seemed to her to be old friends she was leaving forever."
I think Australian literature has undergone a lot of undue criticism throughout its history, and is often discredited because it either too nationalistic or doesn't follow in the style of its British or American counterparts. Ruth Park's The Harp in the South is not one of these texts.
Set in Plymouth Street, Sydney, Park's novel is centered upon the lives of the Darcy family, a middle class Irish-Australian family. Her novel almost takes a snapshot of life during 1940s Australia, commenting upon school and home life, suburbia, migrants and the place of religion within society.
Park's novel opens by introducing the everyday humdrum of the Darcy household, following the livelihood of married couple Hughie and Mumma, along with their daughters Roie and Dolour.
While on the surface Park illustrates a seemingly functional family, audiences soon come to learn of the heartbreak which mars a tightly bound family, a family for whom the loss of a family member - three year old Thady - resonates throughout their lives.
We are not only granted insight into the lives of the Darcys, but also the lives of those around them: Miss Shiely and her son Johnny, who has Down's Syndrome, and Lick Jimmy the local grocer. With these characters Park illustrates the sheer beauty and conflict of everyday human life and existence.
For female readers such as myself, I found it very easy to identify (and sympathise!) with Roie's impulsive buy at Paddy's market, spending the money given to her by her mother for groceries on a shawl. Readers can also share in Dolour's triumph as she wins a competition on the radio despite her father's doubtful expectations.
Despite being written almost 60 years ago, many of the text's themes still hold relevance to a modern audience. Park's thematic references to morality, abortion and the place of religion within society are subjects still challenged and debated today. Although receiving much criticism after its publishing, commenting upon issues such as abortion truly allows Park's text to transcend its time.
Park's The Harp in the South is an enthralling read, and is currently available as part of the Harp in the South Novels trilogy-in-one-volume featuring the sequel, A Poor Man's Orange, and the later-written prequel, Missus.
If you're a fan of family dramas, or want to reacquaint yourself with some of Australia's literary gems, The Harp in the South is most definitely for you. And for those who aren't readers, director George Whaley released a TV mini series based on the book, which features the late Bud Tingwell. Either is definitely worth checking out.
4 out of 5
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