June, 2011: Nic lent me Ruth Park's 1977 novel, Swords And Crowns And Rings, before I'd been disappointed by Harp In The South. Swords And Crowns And Rings was sitting there beside my bed after I'd finished Dana's sea-faring account, and I didn't have anything else to read, so I started it. It turned out to be one of the best novels I've read for ages! Park wrote Swords twenty-six years after Harp, so it's hardly surprising that, over the intervening years, she became a better novelist. If her only intention was to write a novel that would make the reader less prejudiced against dwarves, she succeeded; however, another consequence is that she wrote a great love story; another is that she has drawn a frightening, vivid picture of Australia during the Depression (I had no idea it was so bad!); and another is that she uses the novel to express some of her ideas about politics and economics.
It's the type of novel I admire the most: it is packed with ideas and substance (fulfilling the writer's needs), but it never neglects the story (fulfilling the reader's needs). It balances these two forces very evenly. I'd put Dickens a bit further across the scale towards the reader's needs, and Stead further across in the other direction towards the writer's needs...this novel might be squarely in the middle. Though I don't know how useful that reader's-writer's scale is.
Another balance that she gets just right is that between realism, or naturalism, and dramatisation. Having a dwarf for a hero immediately puts us in fairytale territory, as does the title. John Luke Hanna, our hero, loves the little princess-like Cushie, with blonde ringlets and a cold-hearted mother. There are the fierce, huge, brawling brothers with whom Jack Hanna gets his first job - one brother is missing an eye, one is fat, one is dark, one is puny and girlish. There's the journey that Jack and his stepfather undertake when they lose their shop in the Depression. The fairytale structure and motifs are unmistakable, and conscious - and yet, realism underpins everything. She has too much of a social conscience to be satisfied with fantasy. Park has found a story that, though colourful, really could have happened! - she simply allows the fairytale to show through. There's nothing forced about this story, even though it's so intricately constructed. It is masterful! The opposite to a novel like this might be one of the Carver school - those novels that pose as harsh, depressing, bleak realism, but actually are fairytales (if I'm being kind), or bullshit (my true opinion).
With my ongoing interest in alcohol (being all but a teetotaller), I picked up this handy little sentence, about eighteen-year-old Cushie, drinking her way through despair when she stays with her aunt and her aunt's girlfriend in order to have a secret abortion (alcoholism, lesbians, unwanted pregnancies, abortions - typical 'realist' material):
She was very crafty at taking the smallest amount from the bottle when she found it, and putting things back exactly as they had been, so that Claudie or Iris could never be sure whether the bottle had been touched. And it seemed that, with care, an intelligent person could manage to keep a thin veil of alcohol between herself and the sharp corners of life.
Here's a typical passage - colourful, poetic, and completely relevant. Jack comes back to his hometown to visit his mother, who is sick. Jack is shocked by the change he sees in her:
Jackie felt as though the air were full of dust, the familiar roof fallen in, the chimney dry and limey, crumbling. A wild, prophetic imagination conjured up for him weeds on the hearthstone, a doorless cupboard full of nettles, his mother's chair fallen in the corner, pocked with dry rot.
"The sky takes over in the end," remarked the Nun [Jack's stepfather].
Jack looked at him in terror. Then he realised that his stepfather had said something different altogether - something about Maida.
"She's expecting another baby," he said. His mother was pleased. Her toy-soldier cheeks became more empurpled.
Another wise sentence that you can apply to anything - even perhaps your love life - not just politics:
Jackie knew very little about [the new State Premier, Lang], and he had not yet been so conditioned by severe hardship that his mind was stimulated by the sound of any new name, any new proposition.
Jack and the Nun stowaway on a freight train, and jump off just as a notorious guard, Big Owen, is about to bash out their brains. This is one of those sentences that suggest a whole novel of its own:
Jack wondered how many of the hoboes found dead and mutilated beside the line had been thrown off by such as Big Owen, murderous hulks who'd had a whale of a time during the War and now found their métier in the Depression, bashing up tramps.
Many wise sentences. Here is another, formed by Cushie, who became pregnant to Jack - he didn't know, and was forced into marriage with another woman - had an abortion, a crisis, and is now starting to make a better life for herself:
She had accepted that no one could come into another's life without consequences. Jackie had taught her that. She would not want him to feel guilt for anything in her life.
The Nun battles with depression and bed bugs in a slum in Surry Hills:
With the boy gone, he felt as if he had dropped into a sea of pumice. Everything abraded feebly, yielded, fell away beneath him. His sense of hopeless dismay was so profound it was near panic. He wanted to get up, run like blazes out of this place, jump a train anywhere. The city noises clacked in his ears, his head. He couldn't think. Everything was wrong. There was not even any true darkness outside the window, only a church spire scummed over with green reflected from some illuminated sign. After a while, he saw a blister pearl appear from behind the spire. He lay there, scratching, looking at it dully for several minutes before he recognised it as the moon. His scratching became frantic, and he lit a match to see what was biting him. The whole wall was hung with tiny black berries. As he gaped, they broke their ranks and vanished.
A page later:
In the morning, both [Jackie] and Jerry were marked all over with swollen welts; their shirts were speckled with blood exuded by the glutted bugs. The musky smell of the insects was in the air.