“Harp in the South” by Ruth Park (1948) – 301 pages
When I picture Australia, nearly the last thing I would picture is city tenement slums. Yet I suppose every large city in the world has tenement slums. And if there is anywhere in the world a writer who could capture life in the slums in honest, moving, and pitch-perfect words, it would be in Australia.
I first heard about “Harp in the South” from Whispering Gums and ANZ Litlovers Litblog. Although there are quite a few writers from Australia who have become world-famous, Ruth Park is still Australia’s well-kept secret.
Perhaps the most famous writer of the urban slums is Charles Dickens. He frequently wrote dramatically of the London slums in the mid-nineteenth century, if a touch over-theatrical for my taste. In the twentieth century, Henry Roth captured the slums of New York in “Call It Sleep”, while Richard Wright in “Native Son” and Nelson Algren in “Never Come Morning” caught the slums of Chicago. John Steinbeck depicted the tough lives of the Mexicans working in the canning industry in California in “Cannery Row”. “Harp in the South” stands with and in several ways surpasses these other fine novels of the slums.
“Harp in the South” takes place in the tenement neighborhood of Surrey Hill in Sydney, Australia. If it weren’t for bad luck, the people there would have no luck at all, and much of the bad luck is their own fault. This novel centers on the Darcy family. Father Hughie Darcy is a steady worker and a family man, but like any good sport he goes to the local bar and gets fall-down drunk every Saturday afternoon. He also stops at the bar after work on Fridays, and he frequently picks fights. His wife Mumma is a saint making sure her kids have a good upbringing; Mumma has been getting fatter as the years go by. Then there are the two daughters Roie (Rowena) who is about seventeen and Dolour who is about ten. There also was a son Thady who would have been about fifteen, but he mysteriously disappeared on the streets ten years ago. Also Mumma’s mother Grandma moves in with them, and she can pick a fight just as well as Hughie.
Ruth Park pulls no punches in her depiction of life in the slums. Life is as bad as you would expect it to be. Terrible things happen to the Darcy family, but the family has resilience, mostly due to Mumma, to bounce back from the most dreadful occurrences.
The Darcy’s are Irish as are many of their neighbors. There are many nationalities living in the slums including Italians, aboriginals, Jews, Chinese, and Dutchmen (Germans). About the only nationality that’s missing from the Sydney slums of Surrey Hill are the English.
Living in a tenement building, you really get to know the peccadilloes of the people living across the hall or up the stairs. In the Darcy’s’ building, across the hall is Patrick Diamond who is a frequent drinking buddy of Hughie Darcy, except on St. Patrick’s Day. On that day, Mr. Diamond who is an orange Irish Protestant, loathes all Catholics. Yet the next day he’s back to being a drinking buddy of Mr. Darcy. Upstairs is Miss Sheily who the Darcy girls think might be a witch and is as mean as can be until a gentleman admirer starts to call on her.
- “I tell you, he comes nearly every night,” said Patrick Diamond. “And the poor coot thinks the world of her. He’d give her the eyes out of his head to play marbles with.”
- “And she’d do it too,” agreed Hughie, “for she’s just like them old dames who used to sit around the guillotine waiting for the heads to fall so that they could cart them off to make soup of them.”
- “Now, you’re wrong there, Hughie man,” protested Patrick, to whom the breath of life was returning. “Sure there’s no one in the world, not even the French, who would make soup of a human being’s nob.”
- “Miss Sheily’s that sort,” said Hugh decisively.
Did I tell you that this novel is also extremely humorous? The exchanges of dialogue in this novel are some of the sharpest I’ve encountered.
“Harp of the South” is one of those novels which are so well-written sentence for sentence you want to slow down and appreciate each line. As I read this novel, the Darcy family and their horrible lows and reaffirming highs became a part of my life I have added “Harp in the South” to my list of Best Australian Novels at its appropriate place.
Note : I have here the original 1948 edition of “Harp in the South”. It does not have the word “The” in front of “Harp”. I suppose the “The” was added when the book was turned into a TV mini-series in the 1980s.