I didn’t have high expectations for this book. Yet another immigration-themed novel, but this time set in Australia, “The Harp in the South” by Ruth Park is one of the Penguin Australia Classics and is a gorgeous-looking hardcover with bright red pages.
“The Harp in the South” is about Irish immigrant family, the Darcys. In the poverty-stricken area of Sydney known as Shanty Town (Surry Hills), pious Mumma, drunk Hughie and their daughters Roie and Dolour live at number Twelve-and-a-Half Plymouth Street. They share their rather squalid home with tenants, but things get even more crowded when Grandma moves in.
When I first started reading this book, it was with the critical eye of someone living in 2015 and I found myself cringing often, particularly at some of the racial descriptions of the characters such as Lick Jimmy. However, if you take into account that it was originally published in 1948, “The Harp in the South” is actually a pioneer of social justice for its time. It shows multiculturalism in a positive light while the White Australia Policy was still in full swing. It contains positive depictions of an Aboriginal character when Aboriginal people were largely absent from mainstream literature. There are progressive and honest attitudes about sex including suggestions about the importance of consent and that sex work (and the people in the industry) is not necessarily immoral.
There is no question that Park, a professional journalist, had a keen eye for observation. Through her writing, she encourages the reader to look past poverty and see humanity; see exactly the same trials and tribulations we all face as people, regardless of our background. However she also makes it impossible to dismiss the characters because of their socio-economic status, and forces the reader to acknowledge the complexity of factors that cause and maintain poverty.
While an impressive novel for its time, this book isn’t perfect. Although complex, the characters at times do seem a bit like caricatures. Although progressive, there are still some things in there that are pretty cringeworthy by today’s standards. Finally, while it is a fantastic insight into poor Australian life in the 1940s, the attention to detail and day-to-day conversation does sometimes get a bit monotonous. Nevertheless, “The Harp in the South” is a great piece of Australian literature and a fantastic insight into the post-war immigration boom.