The Sydney Writers Festival came and went once again in its usual May glory. I attended a couple of events and returned feeling invigorated and motivated: there are many more downloads on my Kindle than there were at the start of the festival. It reminded me of my very first reader event many years ago. I was in primary school and my mother took me to see the voice of my Sydney childhood, Ruth Park, at the local library. While the glistening waves of Walsh Bay were the backdrop of the latest Sydney Writers Festival, the lacklustre plastic shelves of suburbia thrilled my 8 year old self as I stood metres away from a real author. That feeling hasn’t left me but I think that event, the Ruth Park event, will always be remembered as my first and with it, maintains a slight hint of magic.
Ruth Park wrote what I believe is one of the quintessential Australian novels, The Harp in the South. First published in 1948 and never out of print, it tells the tale of a Catholic Irish Australian family living in the inner city suburb of Surry Hills which was at that time housed the poorest of the poor. I loved this novel (it is actually part of a trilogy) and devoured it with gusto several times. I hope to return to it again soon when my Sydney Writers Festival stack becomes more manageable. But one of Park’s novels that I did not read for reasons that escape me now is her seminal Playing Beatie Bow.
I have to admit it was with trepidation that I picked up Playing Beatie Bow from the shelf. Not unlike To Kill a Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies, I was worried that I had left my reading too late. It features protagonist Abigail Kirk, a fourteen year old girl, whose adventures are the stuff of magical realism and not my usual historical fiction fare. But this novel is truly magical and the distant absence of my adolescence was no barrier to my absolute and exquisite thrill in devouring this tale.
There are some writers who even though they are writing for a younger audience, seem to transcend age barriers. JK Rowling and Roald Dahl immediately spring to mind; their prose is clever and interesting enough to be married with a plot of wild fantasy that captures the imagination of adults and children alike. Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow is absolutely on par with these authors. Intelligent and gripping, this novel is a fun read with a little bit of nostalgia.