The mid 20th century was a time of much promising Australian writing. While a lot of people from other countries can’t probably think of a single novelist of Australian origin penning great books, Patrick White dazzled the capacities of literature with his still and smouldering style, and Christina Stead brought a much-needed playfulness and liveliness to the female- voiced modernist novel. A novelist that has lost a lot of attention both in Australia and abroad would be Ruth Park. I find this a great shame. I don’t think of Park as a writer of the first order, but just like the early 20th century female Australian writer Henry Handel Richardson, Park brought a lot of sophistication and polish to the novel form. She also wrote about people who were at that time not often depicted in literature: migrants living in big cities.
The Harp in the South is a collection of three of Park’s most important novels, detailing the lives of Hughie and Margaret Darcy, a second generation Irish pair living in the slums of Sydney (Yes, at that time, like every other developing city, Sydney had slums, and loads of them). Park wastes no time in depicting the destitution of the environment. The tenements of Sydney easily recall the early 20th century depictions of New York, and the reader is very easily set in the story as Park writes on. Park’s style is also very fluid and accessible. Her word usage is usually simple, with her storytelling doing most of the narrative’s legwork.
That being said, no matter how understated Park’s language is, it is very easy to recognize her talents. Park has one of the greatest ears for dialogue I have read. Her Irish Australians really sound properly hyphenated between both cultures, and no matter who she writes about, you can really hear how they properly sound. Park has the tendency to use apostrophes and dashes to indicate speech patterns. This is a style which often annoys me, but Park does it in a way that doesn’t seem to burden the text. Park chooses to use dialogue sparsely, and when she writes it, she does it very well, making sure that her characters jump off the page. The characters she writes about are also very easy to identify with. The trials and tribulations of the Darcy family are of the sort, that any immigrant, of any time period, would have to go through.
At a time when naturalism and its tendencies had long lost prominence, Park stood up, and wrote about things that novelists of the Australian landscape had yet to write about. Urban-rural conflict, cultural confusion, the poverty of tenement life; such themes would become a common focus of a lot of late 20th and early 21st century writing, as more places became urban, and these differences became a common tendency throughout the world. In being such a decadent stylist, Park incidentally preceded a lot of the stylistic tendencies of a later time period. She is no innovator, she is no world-defining novelist, but she wrote quiet stories about people who mattered, and she put them at the forefront of a culture using a pen. She has her prominence in the Australian canon for a reason. Whether she deserves global critical attention might be another question, altogether.