May, 2011: WIthin a month, three people (Stella, Vanessa Berry and Nic) all recommended Ruth Park. I loved Playing Beattie Bow when I was a child, but that was the only novel of hers that I had read. So I bought The Harp In The South (1951). I was disappointed. The first disappointment was the story-telling, which was unsubtle, unnatural and predictable. But story-telling is so hard to do well; it was more, "Oh, well, I'm not in the presence of a master," than a disincentive to keep reading. And at least there was a story being told! But the main disappointment was Park's attitude towards her subjects:
The New Year was important in Surry Hills. It was really 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...
Reading a book is like being guided by the author through the world that they have chosen for you, and it is essential to like and trust your guide, partly because you're going to spend many hours with them, and also because you need to know that they're going to direct your attention to the interesting things. But Park's view of our Surry Hills characters is condescending - her empathy fails, and she only objectifies. Dialogue that attempts to replicate accents is always a bad sign for me - it differentiates the characters (them) from the author and the readers (us). The working-class Surry Hills residents all drop their aitches and say "Gawd", Lick Jimmy, the shopkeeper, struggles with his 'r's.
"You like flire!," asked Lick Jimmy of Dolour as she bought the potatoes. "They bling flire bligade and put him out," he prophesied gleefully, his satin ivory face breaking into ten-thousand hair-fine wrinkles.
I just don't find that interesting. So my trust in Park as a guide diminishes, as I fear she is getting caught up in superficial differences and missing fundamental truths.
But there were some good bits. Charlie is a nice character, and it is unusual to read a book written in the fifties that has an Aboriginal man as a love interest for our main character, Roie (my trust in Park starts to rise again). And it was interesting to read about what Roie's family says about their Aboriginal prospective son-in-law:
"You won't get rumbustious, now, Charlie boy, because there's no offence meant, and heaven knows I'm not the one to skite meself, having a hangman in the family, but could you be telling me where the dark blood in you comes out?"
He sat panting, fiercely swiping at mosquitoes, for they were sitting out on the veranda in the shadow of the hanging vine.
Charlie said: "It comes out all over me, I guess," and sat courteously waiting.
Hugh blurted: "I mean where it comes from?"
"Well, my grandfather was white, and my grandmother was white, so it must have been long before that. It's funny how it shows long after."
"It is that," agreed Hughie, baffled, pulling at his pipe and sliding the worn stem up and down a little nick in his teeth. After a while he tried again: "Perhaps I'm rushing things a bit, and no offence meant if I am, but what about the children?"
Roie and Charlie's honeymoon in Narrabeen has a few good bits in it - it feels as though Park is finally close enough to her characters that she can grant them almost the same depth of feeling that she herself has. But nothing worth dog-earring!
Nic defended Ruth Park, when I reported that I'd been disappointed, and his defence is apt: that in Ruth Park's time, the people about whom she was writing were considered foul beasts, so it was comparatively perceptive of her to see them as simple primitives. And Nic also pointed out that she was revolutionary to write with sympathy about such things as pre-marital sex, abortion and a happy marriage between an Aboriginal man and a white woman. So, I concede, I am being hard on her - I was reading it as a novel, not a historical object.