Ruth Park, Swords and crowns and rings

Note to self: never again “read” an audiobook over a long period, such as, say, 5 months! This is how I read Ruth Park‘s engrossing 1977 Miles Franklin award-winning novel, Swords and crowns and rings. It was not hard to keep up with the plot as it’s pretty straightforward – and powerful. It is hard, though, over such a time to keep up with and remember all the nuances in her writing and expression and the way they affect character development and thematic strands. For a thoughtful review of the book by someone who read it more sensibly, please see my friend Lisa’s, of ANZLitLovers, here.

I am not an experienced “reader” of audiobooks and I have to say that I found what seemed to me to be the over-dramatisation of the story rather trying in the first few CDs. I gradually got used to it, however, and by the end I was happy with Rubinstein’s reading, but it did take me a while to settle into it.

New-Zealand born Ruth Park is a wonderful chronicler of Australian life. Her novel, The harp in the south, set in working class Sydney in the 1940s is, to my mind at least, an Australian classic – but it is just one of her extensive and well-regarded body of work. Her autobiographies are also well-worth reading, not only for the light they throw on her life and on that of her husband, author D’Arcy Niland, but also on that of the Australian literary establishment of the mid-twentieth century.

Anyhow, back to the novel. Swords and crowns and rings tells the story of two young people born in an Australian country town before World War 1 – pretty Cushie Moy (born to a comfortable family with the stereotypical socially ambitious mother who has married down) and the dwarf, Jackie Hanna (whose background is well and truly working class). Not surprisingly, Cushie’s parents frown on the friendship which develops between the two. This is not an innovative story but, rather, good historical fiction with evocative writing and sensitive character development. Consequently, as you would expect, the two are separated just as they realise their love for each other and the book then chronicles their respective lives – Cushie with various relations in Sydney and Jackie in a number of country locations before he too reaches Sydney. Much of the book takes place during the early 1930s Depression. Park gorgeously evokes the hardships – physical, economic and emotional – experienced by people like Jackie and his step-dad “the Nun” as they struggle to support themselves. All this is underpinned by Park’s thorough knowledge of the social and political history of the time: we learn about labour organisations and the rise of socialism, of that irascible politician “Big Fella” Jack Lang, and of the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The resolution is predictable – it is, after all, a book of its genre – but it is not over-sentimentalised and is not achieved before the characters, Jackie in particular, have matured to the point that we can trust that he not only deserves what will come but that he will continue to work and mature for the betterment of himself and those he loves. It is truly a powerful book about human nature, as well as about the place and time in which it is set.

Ruth Park
Swords and crowns and rings (Audio CD)
Read by Deidre Rubenstein
Bolinda Audio, 2007
18 hours on 15 compact discs
ISBN: 9781741636628

15 thoughts on “Ruth Park, Swords and crowns and rings

    • Yes, I’m sure you can! I don’t recommend it – particularly doing the last 2 discs 3-4 months after the rest. It was amazing how easy it was to pick up but there were delicious things she said that I wanted to remember and note. Oh well…

      But, that’s not the main reason I’m doubtful about audiobooks in general – I like to see the words, know how names are spelt etc, mull over ideas, look at the way sentences and paragraphs are structured on the page. I do though understand their value for commutes and long journeys – and for visually impaired people. I need to read some Georgette Heyer soon for the upcoming Jane Austen conference – maybe audiobooks would be a good way to do them as what I really want is how she presents the era … What do you think?

  1. Oh, I don’t know the answer to this …I would never ‘read’ an audio book in preference to reading a real book – for all the reasons that you say. I listen to them as an alternative to radio or music on the daily commute, but the ones I choose tend to be light fiction (which I wouldn’t otherwise read) or the occasional biography or NF. I find listening on an audio book a good way of keeping up with books that are popular-but-not-really-my-kind-of-book, so that I can join in the conversation at the photocopier (e.g. Jodie Piccoult) though I can’t see myself sinking to Twilight or Dan Brown LOL.
    IMO literature doesn’t translate well to audio book because you miss too much of what makes it great, though I do occasionally like to have an audio book of something I’ve already read and loved, like Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire, or Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls which I’ve now listened to 3-4 times. And now and again I’ve made a great discovery, as when I borrowed Truman Capote’s Summer Crossing and loved it. See
    But even more so than a book, because with an audio book you can’t easily flick back to check on something you’ve forgotten or overlooked, you do really need to listen to it without long gaps in between!
    Georgette Heyer! At the last MWF there was a speaker who was writing a book about her…I wonder if she’s finished it yet? Her presentation was fascinating.

    • Thanks Lisa – all of that makes perfect sense to me, and accords with how I view audiobooks. Except for the Ruth Park, the few I’ve read have been lighter genre fiction (Gabrielle Lord) for example, and autobiography/biography (like Kings in grass castles).

      I suspect that speaker you heard was Jennifer Kloester (sp?). I think she’s from Melbourne. She’ll be talking at the JA conference in Canberra later this year.

  2. Hi Whisperinggums,
    ‘The Harp in the South’ is on my TBR list for this year, and it looks like Ruth Park wrote several other excellent novels.
    Speaking of audiobooks, I’m nearly done with the 18 aufiodiscs of ‘Wolf Hall’. You will soon see how that worked out.

    • Oh do read it Tony… There’s a sequel to The harp in the south, Poor man’s orange, that is worth reading BUT The harp in the south stands very well on its own. She’s also written some very well regarded children’s novels, including Playing Beattie Bow.

      I look forward to hearing what you have to say about Wolf Hall…

  3. I must read The Harp in the South again – I remember not enjoying it altogether much as a child, but it was probably a bit too gritty after my three-hundred-and-forty-second reading of The Little House on the Prairie series. I remember rereading Playing Beattie Bow and enjoying it far more than I did the first time around, too! (Oh, the days when I had time to reread things!)

  4. Ah, Ruth Park…

    My mother had a collection of her books in hardcover that I read in my teens – the Harp in the South, Poor Man’s Orange etc. I also enjoyed Serpent’s Delight. I haven’t read her for years.

    As for Georgette Heyer, her books are so easy to read you can whip through one in a couple of hours. I reread her books when I feel like something light, witty and entertaining.

    • Thanks Anne … I haven’t read Serpent’s delight. Will look out for it. And thanks for the thumbs up on Heyer … do you have favourites you’d recommend. All I want to do is read a couple of her Regency ones – I think most are but have a feeling that she also wrote about other eras as well?

  5. My favourite Heyer novels, or the ones I reread over and over are “Devil’s Cub” which is a sequel to “These Old Shades” (the hero is the son of the TOS protagonists) , “Venetia”, “Frederica”, “Friday’s Child”, “The Nonesuch”, “Sylvester”, “Cotillion” and “Sprig Muslin”. They all have amusing plots and of course are set in Regency times.

    • Ah good, thanks – Devil’s cub, These old shades and Sprig muslin have all been recommended by others. I just love the title Sprig muslin – sounds so pretty and light. I think there’s talk of Sprig muslin (or is it spotted?) in Northanger Abbey! I think I’ve heard people talk of Cotillion too – and that’s a dance so it appeals!! You can see I’m prioritising on very intellectual grounds here! LOL Anyhow, thanks a bunch … I plan to look out for them in the coming weeks, months.

  6. Pingback: 5 classic ANZ authors to discover — a guest post by Sue from Whispering Gums | Reading Matters

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