Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 26, 2010

Fishing in the Styx (1993), by Ruth Park, read by Anna Volska

Fishing in the Styx is the second volume of Ruth Park’s autobiography, read with great sensitivity by Anna Volska on this audiobook.  It is fascinating to listen to the evolution of one of our best-loved writers, writing about living in a 1960s Sydney  unrecognisable today.

Ruth Park was born into poverty in about 1923 in New Zealand, and came to have a career in Australia only by chance.  She was about to embark from Sydney to take up a job with a newspaper in San Fransisco when all shipping was suspended after the bombing of Pearl Harbour.  A fledgling romance with the Australian writer D’Arcy Niland blossomed, and the pair decided that they would make a living as writers, surviving perilously from week to week, juggling finances and writing projects and the children that inevitably came.   She writes about their struggle with humour and optimism but the sense that the light went out of her life with D’Arcy’s premature death is tangible.

Although Park is best known for her novels The Harp in the South andSwords and Crowns and Rings which won the Miles Franklin in 1977, she was also a prolific writer of short stories, radio scripts and children’s books – many of which have been made into film and TV series and are still widely read. It was the scripts she wrote for the ABC Children’s programs and its offshoot, the much-loved Muddle-Headed Wombat Series which provided regular income and supported the family for many years.  Some of these were written at the ironing board, because D’Arcy had commandeered the desk!

You may have noticed that I have categorised Ruth Park’s writing as both Australian and New Zealand literature.  I think both nations can claim her as their own.  Her heart was always with her much-loved parents in New Zealand, and her childhood experiences shaped her life, her values and her powers of observation.  Life with D’arcy in Australia and her experiences in raffish Sydney gave her the material with which to write her most succesful novels.

In Ruth Park’s novels: ‘Some Sorcery in the Subconscious’ Marion Halligan (herself one of my favourite authors, and shamefully neglected on this blog so far) has written with warmth and affection for Ruth Park on the  NLA Ruth Park, A Celebration website and Joy Hooton contrasts the introspective tone of Fishing in the Styx with the more light-hearted The Drums Go Bang!  Hooten also summarises the enduring affection for Park’s work better than I ever could:

The continuing popularity of The Harp is easy to understand. If one listed the negative aspects of the presentation of life in Surry Hills, the novel might seem grim in the extreme, for there is no glossing of cruelties, ignorance, dirt, disease, bigotry, and severe physical and emotional suffering. The frank treatment of such topics as child abuse, abortion and prostitution shocked some contemporary readers, although it would scarcely raise a hair in the 1990s. Nevertheless, the novel’s overwhelming and continuing impressions, which generations of readers have registered, are warmth and even vigour.

Much of this is due to Park’s rich sense of place and her ability to express the distinctiveness of her ‘antique island’ in prose of extraordinary vitality and colour. Few writers can equal her lucid ability to create not just the visual impressions of a scene, but its smells and sounds and the powerful emotions they evoke. As for the human environment, she has a Dickensian zest for the odd and the comedic, although these qualities are valued less for their picturesque effects than for their ingredients of tenacity, spirit and courage. The most valued of her rich gallery of characters, both in The Harp and in her subsequent fiction, are those who, however flawed, have an integrity of being, an impregnable individuality, which lifts them above the crowd and equips them to surmount, at least in spirit, the griefs, frustrations and misadventures which invariably strew their progress. (Joy Hooton, Ruth’s Life and Work.)

An impressive list of Ruth Park’s awards is on the same website but Fishing in the Styx celebrates D’Arcy’s writing as much as her own.  He was a prize-winning author of short stories and novels, most notably The Shiralee (1955) which was made into a film and an ABC Miniseries. Park’s recount of how the film rights and copyright of its successor Call Me When the Cross Turns Over (1957) were as good as lost to unscrupulous film-makers was astonishing – because I have so often come across nostalgia for the ‘golden age’ of publishing when it was said to be conducted with  gentlemanly ethics.  Do visit the D’Arcy Niland website dedicated to his life and work!

As recently as April of this year, Ruth Park’s grandson Tom contacted me to tell me that his grandmother was still alive,  and ‘has a sharp mind and is SO in touch with current events you don’t go short on interesting conversation around her’.   This must surely be true, because she is one of our best storytellers!

Author: Ruth Park
Title: Fishing in the Styx, abridged by Heather Steen
Narrator: Anna Volska
Publisher: ABC Audio, 2005 (originally published as a book in 1993)
ISBN: 9780642588609

Availability either as a book or an audio book looks doubtful.  Dymocks might have it, or the NLA shop, it’s hard to tell.


  1. I loved her two autobiographies when I read them. She’s a wonderful writer and captures her era – in her novels and her autobiography so well. I reckon this would be lovely to hear as an audiobook, particularly with Anna Volska doing the reading.


  2. Anna Volska is *marvellous*. She has such a warm, earthy sort of voice which seems to capture the tone of the author exactly.
    We used to see her quite a bit on TV but now she tours with, and sometimes directs, the Bell Shakespeare Company.


  3. Yes, I remember her from those TV days. She’s married to John Bell isn’t she?


    • I don’t know, I assume so from what it says on imdb…


  4. I really don’t know what happens with the Google Reader feed sometimes. This popped up as current somehow. I was confused as to how you would not be aware that Ruth Park had died, then I noticed that this post was from mid 2010. Now I’m confused. I would love to read more of her work, including her autobiographies. So much out there to read…..


    • Hi Louise, I’ve had the same frustrations with Google Reader myself. I find RSS and subscribe by email much more reliable. I use MS Outlook (on my desktop) and Windows Live (on my laptop) to categorise my inbox so that I can keep it separate from must-read email and that works really well for me.


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