Set in the slums of Surry Hills in Sydney, during the Depression, The Harp in the South follows the misfortunes of the Darcy’s, a working poor Irish Catholic family. It doesn’t matter where it is set, as this story can relate to any family living below the breadline. The daily struggles become the norm, and there’s plenty of families with a father like Hughie – easily led when it comes to the drink and a few pounds in his pocket, and a daughter like Roie (Rowena) - too innocent when it comes to the boys.
'Mumma’ Darcy battles daily to make ends meet. Two growing daughters, a husband who’s generally M.I.A. at the pub on pay day, an elderly mother, two eccentric tenants (not forgetting to mention Puffing Billy the temperamental coal stove), and all living in a rundown cramped terraced house among many other struggling families.
There is plenty of humour, but there’s horror too – the flushing out and killing of the bed bugs, a seedy abortion house, and the ever present memory of Thady, the six year old son who went missing whilst playing outside. Mumma is constantly haunted by what could have happened to him, what he would look like growing up, and this comes to a head towards the end of the novel.
On top of everything else, there’s the sheer lack of privacy in the Darcy’s lives. Everyone ends up knowing their business, and paper thin walls don’t help. Mumma is constantly worried about what the neighbours will think, which clouds her judgement when Roie is assaulted and she stumbles upon Roie's terrible secret which must be kept from the neighbours at all costs.
Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald (in twelve daily installments in 1947) The Harp in the South is the second part of Park's trilogy, though it was written first. It is nostalgic in the telling, which at times tends to gloss over the sheer awfulness of the Darcy’s lives, but it also makes you realise that if you have your family around you then you can pretty much face anything.
Although I did read Missus first, The Harp in the South can be read as a standalone novel – but as I want to know how it all ends up I am currently reading Poor Man’s Orange too.
The Harp in the South was our six monthly ‘buddy’ read discussed via Twitter for January. (Follow @CaffeineChapter, @johnson_mjj, @JudyAuthor, @TomJohnson_Art, @Italiankiwiblog if you would like to join us for our next 'buddy' read!).