Cold Light by Frank Moorhouse
Reviewed by Gillian, Berkelouw Books Mona Vale
I know of no other character in Australian fiction who has come so completely and plausibly into our lives as Edith Campbell Berry - the heroine of three Moorhouse novels written in the last 25 years.
Journalist Annabel Crabb launched the third instalment in Edith's story dressed as Berry. In his article about the book in The Monthly, David Marr writes, "That Edith Campbell Berry has no entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography seems a curious oversight." At a recent talk Moorhouse gave I heard two women tell him that when they have a problem at work they ask "What would Edith do?"
In Cold Light we find Edith in 1950, ensconced with her husband Ambrose Westwood, in The Hotel Canberra. She has returned to Australia after the failure of The League of Nations and hopes to find a career in diplomacy with the Department of External Affairs.
Her life immediately meets with the affairs of the times. She becomes involved with the department charged with the development of the national capital and entranced by Griffin's plan for the city. She meets her long absent brother Frederick, a member of the Communist Party - the party that the Menzies government has plans to outlaw. She ultimately becomes a policy expert on uranium and as one of Whitlam's eminent people attends an IAEA conference. Quite a life for a woman living in a town that she herself describes as a "couple of buildings in a paddock."
At the same time Edith is thinking about family life - how does on become a "sister" after a substantial adult life without a brother? She attends with Frederick a strange re-enactment of the funerals of both her parents - the originals of which neither had attended. She makes a well-intentioned attempt at parenting during a brief marriage to a widower with two sons but finds she has little aptitude for that role and even less for the role of dutiful wife. She searches for thoughtful and interesting company and enjoys "bohemian" gatherings as much as she did as a young woman in Geneva. All the while her body is ageing, her drinking continues to draw comments and she is prone to episodes of melancholic reflection.
For attentive readers of the earlier works there is much to enjoy in Cold Light. The reappearance of the divine Ambrose Westwood; the ever present silver revolver and the experiences it represents; the menacing arrival of Scraper; the dissection of the operation of power and position in bureaucracies; the appreciation of beautiful things;and, the discovery of the exotic in the mundane. For newcomers care has been taken to ensure that Cold Light stands alone.
All readers will appreciate the meticulous writing and detailed realisation of character and period enmeshed with the ideas and events of the time. Highly recommended.
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