Frank Moorhouse, Cold light (Review)

As I reached around the two-thirds point in Frank Moorhouse‘s Cold light, the third tome in his Edith trilogy, I wanted to cry out “Enough already”! It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying (most of) it, and it’s not that it’s a bad book, but it does go on – and on. It’s a book, I think, that could do with a severe prune. But perhaps that’s just li’l ol’ novella loving me talking!

For those not familiar with Frank Moorhouse’s Edith Trilogy, a little summation. The first book, Grand days (1993) sees Edith Campbell Berry join the League of Nations as an enthusiastic, idealistic ingénue. She’s “plucky”, as most reviewers point out, which she needs to be because she wants to change the world. It was, as I recollect, a thoroughly engrossing  a thoughtful insight into Europe at that time. The second book, Dark palace (2000), I haven’t read, though it is in the TBR. Embarrassing eh? It won the Miles Franklin Award after Grand days had been controversially rejected for not being, according to the judges’ interpretation of the award conditions, “Australian enough”. Dark palace chronicles the failure of the League and, with it, of the ideal of internationalism. This ideal, or at least her desire to make the world better, is something that Edith still hankers for at the start of Cold light. Unlike the first two novels, which are set in Europe, Cold light is, until the last few chapters, set in Canberra. That of course gave it added interest for me.

The three novels cover the middle half of the twentieth century – from the early 1920s to the early 1970s – with Cold light “doing” 1950 to 1973. Edith must be in her 40s when the novel opens and is well into her 60s by its close. This can be a challenging time of life for a woman and Frank Moorhouse’s exploration of the issues women face – biologically, socially, and intellectually – is sensitively and authentically done. Edith’s challenges are compounded by the fact that she wants to work – in the public sphere – but in 1950s Australia married women, as she was, were not entitled to work for the government. Edith does manage to get around this in various ways, mostly by being employed under honorariums and the like. Not very satisfactory, but better than nothing.

What I most enjoyed about the novel was its coverage of some of the big issues of its time, particularly in relation to Australia: the planning of Canberra which was still in its infancy, the Cold War and the attempts to ban the Communist Party of Australia, and nuclear energy. One way or another, Edith becomes involved in each of these issues and serves as our guide. I particularly liked the discussions about Canberra and what sort of city it should be. Early in the novel it is described as a “toy city”, a “make-believe city”, an “unfinished city”, “a city that is not a city”. Some of those criticisms still hang over it now, though less so I hope. Certainly, Edith begins to warm to it and enthusiastically works for a few years with the Town Planning section. She initially envisions it as a place of “communal memory”, as “the living memory of the nation”. Fifteen years on, as the will-we-won’t-we-will-we-won’t-we artificial lake is finally “opened”, her thinking has moved on. She would like to see Canberra as a “social laboratory”, which would “try out all sorts of ideas for good living”, and as a “place for citizens to ask questions”. Moorhouse’s thorough research into Canberra’s planning shows through here, as it does in the other topics he covers in the book.

I also enjoyed much of his characterisation. The novel has a large cast of characters, so his list of “Who is who in the book” at the end, with the “real” people asterisked, is very useful. But, beware, because if you read Edith’s entry, you’ll find a potential spoiler. The best drawn characters are the fictional ones: Edith, her cross-dressing “lavender husband” Ambrose, and to a less extent her brother and Communist Party official Frederick, and his girl-friend-partner, Janice, for whom Edith has some confused feelings.

Edith is, of course, the focal character. The novel’s voice is third person subjective, that is, it is told through Edith’s eyes, her perspective. And Moorhouse does it well. Edith’s a living, breathing, believable human being – but there’s just too much of her. We spend too long with her questioning and ruminating on just about everything she confronts. She ponders, and wonders, she asks herself multiple questions – and it is all just too much. And yet, and I know I’m being contradictory, she’s an engaging character. But not “plucky”. Surely that’s a bit twee for a professional woman? I’d use the words resourceful and confident. Even when she doesn’t feel confident, she knows how to put on a show. Despite this, by the book’s end, she wonders if she’s “bungled” her life. She wonders, in fact, for many pages, and asks many questions (have I said that before?) in the process. She tries to recast her life as “a journey” rather than as a failure to achieve goals, which seems fair enough to me. She’s most concerned, at this point, with her personal rather than her professional life, and the fact that she’s had three husbands. Alluding to Othello, she concludes:

She had loved not too wisely, nor too well. But she had tried with all her might.

She sure had.

I also enjoyed the themes of the novel. There are many of them, in fact, but the two that interested me most are the failure of idealism and the challenges of aging. As the book draws to a close she wonders:

Perhaps she was wrong to assume that evolution was moving towards some humanistic paradise.

But she still believes that

Safety lay in candour – the open personality in an open society.

And I love her for it.

Finally, I liked the fact that this novel of uncertainties has a very certain end. Moorhouse was clearly determined to end with a bang, not a whimper. Overall though, I would have like some zing, some wit, or alternatively, something to wrench my guts. Instead, it was just a little too laboured for me to feel the “wow” that I’d hoped for. A good read? Yes. An interesting read? Definitely. But a great read? Not quite.

For a thorough and totally positive review, check out Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers.

Frank Moorhouse
Cold light
North Sydney: Vintage Books, 2011
719pp.
ISBN: 9781741661262