The Harp in the South: Australian Book Review



Ruth Park, a New Zealander, married to well known  Australian author D’Arcy Niland (who wrote the Shiralee) wrote Harp in the South in response to a competition with a prize of 2,000 pounds. She had tried to persuade her husband to enter but he was too busy so she wrote it on a trip home to New Zealand on her mother’s kitchen table whilst her mother minded her two children. Wouldn’t you love to be able to pen a best seller that has not been out of print since 1948 in a matter of two weeks.

The novel won the prize and in addition to the money, Angus and Robertson Booksellers had pledged to publish the winning entry. The narrative followed an Irish Australian family who lived at 12 and a half Plymouth Lane Surrey Hills which in those days were the slums of Sydney. Angus and Robertson’s did their best to wheedle their way out of publishing the manuscript as it was written by a woman treating subjects concerning women in a sensitive, kindly way with no judgement present. It is credited with a government move to inject money into the slum a few years later and was on the school reading list when I went to school and I believe still is today. I did not read it at that time doing instead Merry Go Round in the Sea (set in Western Australia) by Randolf Stowe. Another book I’d recommend.

Harp in the South follows an Irish catholic family consisting of devout Mum Ruth, her wayward yet well-meaning alcoholic husband Hughie and their two daughters Rowena (a young woman suffering love and its consequences who finally falls in love with a part aboriginal boy ) and Dolour a younger daughter (who ends up hating Rowena’s fiance as he takes her place in Rowena’s heart.  Also ever present is the son Thaddy who disappeared as a six year old, and pipe smoking whiskey swilling Grandma whom the nuns love to visit to hear about Ireland.They have two lodgers – the protestant alcoholic Mr Diamond and an unmarried mother and her mentally disabled son. Other characters include the local Madam, the Chinese grocer and a Swedish organ grinder, and the school nuns.

What set this book apart was the issues it dealt with at the time which are still issues today and thus not only does this book give us a glimpse into a historical period of Surrey Hills but also makes us look in a caring, non-judgemental way at issues such as abortion, prostitution, bringing up children, alcoholism, mixed marriage, the angst between Roman Catholics and protestants (which I can remember from my own childhood), slum living and the importance of education. She does not write of these issues with retribution in mind eg Rowena’s unfortunate love affair with Tommy who does not see her again once she slept with him, leaving her pregnant and desperate. She plans to have an abortion but gets frightened by the preceding girls’ screams and leaves only to lose the baby when she is attacked by a group of sailors. In a normal book from this age this would have left her unable to find love and if she did unable to have children. Instead she does have a beautiful baby to Charlie her husband. Park writes with affection for her characters and great humour and although she makes sure we understand the squalor including the bed bugs we are never left feeling totally miserable as I did when I read Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. 

Her memoirs A Fence around the Cuckoo (a coming of age memoir) and Fishing in the Styx lend some insights into the writing of the Harp in the South (particularly the latter which deals with her own life in Surrey Hills as a young married mother and her Irish Australian husband and his family. I have read both of these books and enjoyed them thoroughly. She wrote a sequel Poor Man’s Orange  (which I haven’t read) and over 20 years later a prequel Missus which I have read. This tells of Hughie and his brother growing up in country NSW. I enjoyed it as well. The three books are sold as a trilogy but are stand alone novels.

Harp in the South is available on Amazon where it is described:

“An Australian classic, this is the story of the Darcy family who live in the Depression era tenements of Surry Hills, Sydney.

Hugh and Margaret Darcy are raising their family in Sydney amid the brothels, grog shops, and run-down boarding houses of Surry Hills, where money is scarce and life is not easy.

Filled with beautifully drawn characters that will make you laugh as much as cry, this Australian classic will take you straight back to the colourful slums of Sydney with convincing depth, careful detail, and great heart.” Amazon

Would I recommend this book: Most definitely

About Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

I began my working career as a reluctant potato peeler whilst waiting to commence my training as a student nurse. On completion I worked mainly in intensive care/coronary care; finishing my hospital career as clinical nurse educator in intensive care. A life changing period as a resort owner/manager on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu was followed by recovery time as a farmer at Bucca Wauka. Having discovered I was no farmer and vowing never again to own an animal bigger than myself I took on the Barrington General Store. Here we also ran a five star restaurant. Working the shop of a day 7am - 6pm followed by the restaurant until late was surprisingly more stressful than Tanna. On the sale we decided to retire and renovate our house with the help of a builder friend. Now believing we knew everything about building we set to constructing our own house. Just finished a coal mine decided to set up in our backyard. Definitely time to retire we moved to Queensland. I had been writing a manuscript for some time. In the desire to complete this I enrolled in a post grad certificate in creative Industries which I completed 2013. I followed this by doing a Master of Arts by research graduating in 2017. Now I live to write and write to live.
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19 Responses to The Harp in the South: Australian Book Review

  1. I’ve never even heard of this. O_o Embarrassing to admit. But will go check it out. What a great background, too, with the contest and the store trying to get out of selling it. I couldn’t make out if this one was autobiographical or just the other two. Thanks for sharing this, Irene.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I adored Harp in the South when I was at school, I enjoyed Poor Man’s Orange even more, but have never heard of the third. I wonder would I enjoy it as much now, 30 odd years later? Thanks for the memories

    Liked by 1 person

  3. macmsue says:

    I loved Ruth Park’s books when I read them years ago but your post has sent me on a quest to check them out again. Thanks for the informative post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for this interesting post, Irene. I have been meaning to reread some of Ruth Park’s work for ages. You have jogged my memories of how much I enjoyed her writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
    Check out this recommendation for the book, The Harp in the South by Ruth Park courtesy of Irene Waters’ blog.


  6. This sounds like an exciting series I’d really enjoy. I’ve looked into getting this and have found it’s available on Amazon as one volume, 3 stories for a reasonable price. I think I should get to know more about Australian history and culture – thanks for your review, Ilene.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: # Weekend Coffee Share: 18th February 2017 | Reflections and Nightmares- Irene A Waters (writer and memoirist)

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