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.
Swords and crowns and rings (Audio CD)
Read by Deidre Rubenstein
Bolinda Audio, 2007
18 hours on 15 compact discs