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Cold Light (2011)

by Frank Moorhouse

Series: Edith Trilogy (3)

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523407,170 (3.33)4
It is 1950, the League of Nations has collapsed and the newly formed United Nations has rejected all those who worked and fought for the League. Edith Campbell Berry and her now husband Ambrose Westwood are back from one of the oldest cities of the world to live in the newest city of the world - she had moved from trying to make a world capital in Geneva to a dusty town trying to become a national capital. Edith has ambitions to be Australia's first female Ambassador and is seeking a position in Canberra with the Department of External Affairs. Finding her ambitions thwarted in this area Edith vigorously involves herself in the building of the new centre of civilization. Frederick, Edith's brother, who disappeared from her life before she left Australia, reacquaints himself with her and introduces Edith to the Australian Communist Party in which he is a leader. Frederick's relationship to Edith, in the time of the Communist Party Dissolution Act is a threat to Ambrose's career with the High Commission, or does it provide him with an opportunity to spy? After pursuing the Bloomsbury life for many years, Edith now finds herself questioning her sexuality and why she has been prepared to settle for being 'a wife with a lavender husband' and yearns for a family. Richard, who audaciously laid his hand on her leg at a dinner party hosted by Prime Minister Menzies, ultimately fulfils these desires by marrying Edith and providing her with two step-sons. Uranium has been discovered in Australia and Richard is involved in its study and exploitation. Atomic energy has always been an interest of Edith and she takes a role on the Uranium Desk - which she re-names for her own purposes the Atoms for Peace desk - at Parliament House. Cold Light completes the circle begun in Grand Days, the search for symbolic sites to achieve great civic enterprises.… (more)
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Frank Moorhouse writes another 'Edith' novel. Suddenly, a trilogy. However, this last one was a disappointment for me. The author's impeccable research greatly improved 'Grand Days' and 'Dark Palace', the previous volumes. In those novels the grand themes of internationalism, war and dissolution of organisations were juxtaposed with the unique inner life of heroine Edith Cambell Berry. In 'Cold Light' we still have Edith, now older and perhaps wiser. But the international element is gone and is replaced by - Canberra in the 1950s, a place about as parochial as can be. Once again Frank Moorhouse has done his reading; the history of Canberra and the Communist party have been well researched. They just are not interesting. Canberra can never be a 'character city'. Edith herself mourns the loss of the wider world (for about two thirds of the book), as did this reader. I also wondered if any cynicism had motivated the author to write about Canberra so as to publish coincidentally with the city's centenary. 'Cold Light' covers decades of Edith's life instead of years, so there is a sense that parts of her life are skipped or glossed over, instead of lived fully. It is a book about ageing and compromise and it did not add much to 'Dark Palace'. ( )
  questbird | Apr 17, 2013 |
In Grand Days (1993), it is the 1920s and Edith Campbell Berry sets off from country Australia to join the League of Nations in Geneva. Her story continued in Dark Palace (2000) and ''The Edith Trilogy'' concludes now with Cold Light (2011).

It is 1950, the League of Nations has collapsed and the newly formed United Nations has rejected all those who worked and fought for the League. Edith Campbell Berry is out of a job, her vision shattered. With her sexually unconventional husband, Ambrose, she comes back to Australia to live in Canberra. Edith now has ambitions to become Australia's first female ambassador.

While she waits for a Call from On High, she finds herself caught up in the planning of the national capital and the dream that it should be 'a city like no other'. Reluctantly at first - for once she planned the world, not a bush capital - Edith joins the committee that builds the city, whether it abides by or ignores the original intentions of Walter Burley Griffin. With Menzies on side, Edith at least ensures the city at last gets its lake.

When her communist brother, Frederick, turns up out of the blue after many years of absence, she becomes concerned that he may jeopardise her chances of becoming a diplomat. It is not a safe time to be a communist in Australia or to be related to one, but she refuses to be cowed by the anti-communist sentiment sweeping the country. It is also not a safe time or place to be 'a wife with a lavender husband'. After pursuing the Bloomsbury life for many years, Edith finds herself fearful of being exposed. Unexpectedly, in mid-life she also realises that she yearns for children. When she meets a man who could offer not only security but a ready-made family, she consults the Book of Crossroads and the answer changes the course of her life.

Moorhouse intermingles his historical and fictional characters, or rather, makes them part of the same fiction. As Moorhouse points out, ''this book is, in part, based on the dramatic reconstruction of real people identified by their actual names and on fictional characters who sometimes embody features of people who existed at the time''. Frederick is one of the latter but we also meet Menzies, Chifley and Whitlam, Chief Justice John Latham and such communist writers as Ian Turner. Moorhouse constructs a vivid panorama of last century's third quarter.
For those who have followed Edith from the start of her journey, 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.
Edith Campbell Berry has taken us on a strange voyage through the psyche of Australia at an pivotal time in our history. We’ve laughed; we’ve cried; we’ve had our differences. After all these years and pages, we know ourselves and our place in the world better. It’s no small thing. For me, the world will be a smaller place without Edith’s next adventures to look forward to. ( )
  Jawin | Apr 5, 2012 |
http://wp.me/puHkv-1VW

This is a rare thing, a novel whose main character lives consciously and deliberately as part of the great historical narrative of her time. Edith Campbell Berry engages with ideas, faces political realities, and tries to wield influence to make things better. In the first chapters she has returned to Australia in the early 1950s. She has a hand in the design of Canberra – in fact, her intervention seems to be crucial to the decision to go ahead with Walter and Marion Griffin's plan for a lake. Through her brother and his partner she is a close-up witness to the Communist Party's response to Bob Menzies' failed attempt to ban it, and then to Khrushchev's revelations about Stalin and the invasion of Hungary. She dines at Menzies' table, and chats with Whitlam soon after his election in 1972. She works with the International Atomic Energy Agency and is again close to the action when secrets about the English atomic tests in Western Australia leak out. At her death she is a special envoy in the Middle East for the Whitlam government.

But Edith is no cardboard cutout. Through all these years, she has to contend with assumptions that women's place is not among those wielding power. Failing to gain official positions, she bluffs her way past public service obstacles and procedures, works her connections, takes advantage of gossip that she is some kind of spy. Her sexual experiences, and sexual might-have-beens, are unconventional and complex. Possibly the most attractive thing about the writing is the sense that Frank Moorhouse is discovering things about her as the novel progresses. She is someone Frank admires and loves, someone who exists independently of him. It feels at the end of the book that one has read the story of a life lived for its own sake and not to enact a writer's world view. That's really something.

But, you know, I can't say I enjoyed the book. It's the third volume of a trilogy and maybe I should have read the other two books first. As it was, there seemed to be an inordinate amount of recapping. I expect that if I'd read the other books, these would have been less irritating, and I might have had greater tolerance for Edith's frequent ruminations because of a clearer sense of them as charting her mental journey. As it was I couldn't find anything wise, witty or provocative in these ruminations, and sometimes they went for several pages – I don't think I've ever been so bored in a book that I still wanted to keep reading.

And then there was the sense that Moorhouse had done a huge amount of research and couldn't bear to let some of it go even though it didn't quite serve the story.

I didn't hate the book. I did learn from it. I do admire it. I'm glad I read it. It was a slog. ( )
  shawjonathan | Mar 1, 2012 |
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'I'm your brother,' he said, holding his cap in both hands.
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It is 1950, the League of Nations has collapsed and the newly formed United Nations has rejected all those who worked and fought for the League. Edith Campbell Berry and her now husband Ambrose Westwood are back from one of the oldest cities of the world to live in the newest city of the world - she had moved from trying to make a world capital in Geneva to a dusty town trying to become a national capital. Edith has ambitions to be Australia's first female Ambassador and is seeking a position in Canberra with the Department of External Affairs. Finding her ambitions thwarted in this area Edith vigorously involves herself in the building of the new centre of civilization. Frederick, Edith's brother, who disappeared from her life before she left Australia, reacquaints himself with her and introduces Edith to the Australian Communist Party in which he is a leader. Frederick's relationship to Edith, in the time of the Communist Party Dissolution Act is a threat to Ambrose's career with the High Commission, or does it provide him with an opportunity to spy? After pursuing the Bloomsbury life for many years, Edith now finds herself questioning her sexuality and why she has been prepared to settle for being 'a wife with a lavender husband' and yearns for a family. Richard, who audaciously laid his hand on her leg at a dinner party hosted by Prime Minister Menzies, ultimately fulfils these desires by marrying Edith and providing her with two step-sons. Uranium has been discovered in Australia and Richard is involved in its study and exploitation. Atomic energy has always been an interest of Edith and she takes a role on the Uranium Desk - which she re-names for her own purposes the Atoms for Peace desk - at Parliament House. Cold Light completes the circle begun in Grand Days, the search for symbolic sites to achieve great civic enterprises.

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