The Harp in the South by Ruth Park


I finally read this beloved Australian book whose author died in December.  She wrote many children's books and was married to D'Arcy Niland, another much-loved author who wrote The Shiralee (reviewed here).  The Harp in the South was published in 1948 and is set in the slums of Sydney, probably in early 40s, though the war is not mentioned.  Most of the inhabitants of Surry Hills are Irish, though the occasional Asian storekeeper shows up, for example, Lick Jimmy moves next door to the Darcy family and sells fruits and vegetables.

The family's grim existence is documented, from the ineradicable bedbugs to the soot-belching wood cookstove.  There is a distressing predictability in their reactions.  When the hooker-turned-successful-madame gives Hughie, the father, much needed cash after a family disaster, he makes a stop in the bar and doesn't make it home with any money. 

There is the view of these people as "the other," as evidenced by this passage:

The New Year was important in Surry Hills.  It was the great feast of the year, uninhibited by religious thoughts, and with a pagan finality about it.  Those people, simple and primitive, but with a great capacity for feeling the abstract strong and vital about them, really heard the Old Year's faltering footsteps, and the clang of the door which sounded in the midnight chimes on December 31st.  So they made it a feast, with lots of noise and ribaldry, as ancient peoples did when they were a little fearful, and wanted to frighten away their fear.

I would say we're all "simple and primitive" at times.  The few passages like the one above are disconcerting because as a whole, the characters are multi-faceted, both foolish and admirable. 

Tim Winton's Cloudstreet came to mind as I read this.

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