I’m in love with a novel, with a story and with a character. I’ve just finished Lisa Lang’s Utopian Man (published by Allen and Unwin 2010). I have written previously about attending her launch and my excitement about reading the book. I had read Lang’s Chasing the Rainbow, a brilliant little book published by Arcade publishing. When I saw that Utopian Man had won the Australian/Vogel award I locked the launch in my diary and made sure I was there.
I have finally had a chance to read the novel and I think it’s wonderful. I feel like shouting the story of Edward Cole from the rooftops of Bourke Street and forcing people to listen. I feel like setting up a memorial day and forcing people to celebrate the magic of what was Cole’s Book Arcade. When I think of the hoards that loaf through Bourke Street during the Christmas period I feel like shouting “what if it could feel like Christmas every day but without the religious sentiment and the brash commercialism, without the guilt of necessity of purchase. This is what we once had in Melbourne, right here, but no one seems to remember.” Perhaps that is what I loved about this book, it has inspired me to love, to feel nostalgic, to feel anger, it’s inspired me to feel.
I will admit that this book is close to my heart because it shares some themes with my novel. In fact I have been contemplating over the last 6 months changing my dates slightly so my protagonist can visit Cole’s arcade – I can picture a showdown with the monkeys, it is a place she would feel at home. Utopian Man has characters who make cameos in my novel. Edward works through the same goldfields, the same Melbourne streets as my protagonists. He attends the sort of public lectures my protagonist would be at. His wife reads the Harbinger of Light a spiritualist newspaper popular in 1880’s/1890’s Melbourne. They attend séances with similar outcomes to my characters. The icing on the cake for me was a passing reference to Romsey; the town I grew up in. And yes, I know my character’s aren’t real, and that Utopian Man is a novel but as a writer it is exciting to come across similar work, it has motivated me to keep writing. It has made me feel like there is an audience out there that is interested in the same themes.
Besides my personal considerations the novel is fantastic. Structurally it works beautifully for a fictional telling of an actual life. The prologue hooks us in during 1916, and then chapter 1 moves back to 1883. Throughout the novel we get hints of a secret past that glisten out at us, remind us the character has a complexity, a history and then let’s us carry on with a great story to see how this is resolved in the end. The character of Edward is based on his integrity. But flashbacks create a sense of ill-ease and are paired with a sense that his integrity could be challenged in the future by an array of things including the lingering presence of an attractive widow. As readers we face this knowing that Cole’s decisions impact not only him, but his family, friends and business too.
While the novel focuses with primarily one character as the title suggests, Lang has captured the feeling of family and the intimacy therein beautifully. It is not often that a novel has such an array of characters all as equally developed as the protagonist. The family home, above the Arcade, began to feel to me like a warm rug I wanted to wrap myself in. There were the family difficulties, and I wonder if I could live with a parent as much as a dreamer as Cole was, but I loved the feeling of being part of that family as I read. I could understand the relationships between siblings, and the forces that outside friends bought to family.
Coupled with the intricacies of the domestic Lang has also been able to cover with a wider political spectrum. The novel spans the pre Eureka goldfields, the period immediately before Federation and immediately after. This time includes the 1880s Marvellous Melbourne, the 1890s depression, the drive for federated states and the heated issues of the white Australia policy from a social and personal level. Each of these issues are viewed in light of the impact to Melbourne, the impact to Cole’s business, the impact to Cole’s family and friends, and the impact to Cole himself. There is a marrying of personal beliefs with the wider concept of social good, and she challenges this to it’s limits on many levels.
Lang’ prose is beautiful and I often found myself reading in the manner that I’d typically read a poem. There were beautiful images that re-read and dwelled on. After a day at the beach “He hangs the rugs out in the lemon twilight. The evening has a dusty taste. He feels dry – his skin, his mouth, his thoughts- a desiccation of body and soul.” Later “the sky is navy, nursing a swollen moon.” The arcade and Melbourne were clear in my mind. Leitmotifs of cuckoo clocks and stuffed bears used as hat stands were brilliantly placed though the novel and added to the quirkiness of the story.
Besides all of this the novel is just a great story, about a great man and a great period in Australian history. Like I said, I wish I could force people to read it but that would go against everything Edward Cole stood for.