‘You are just the spirit Canberra needs.’
In 1950, with the collapse of the League of Nations, Edith Campbell Berry is out of a job. The newly formed United Nations has rejected all of those who worked and fought for the League, including Edith who joined the League in Geneva before the war. Edith returns to Australia, with her husband ‘the sexually unconventional‘ Ambrose Westwood, to Canberra, where she hopes to obtain a diplomatic posting.
Edith becomes involved in planning for the national capital. She is also concerned that the emergence of her communist brother Frederick and his girlfriend Janice will jeopardise her chances of a diplomatic posting. Both threads were of particular interest to me: I had relatives who were members of the Communist Party of Australia during the 1950s, and I have lived in Canberra since 1974.
Edith is a fascinating character. Australia is not yet ready to make the best use of her skills, nor would her unconventional marriage to Ambrose be acceptable in the conservative Australia of the era. Edith is mindful of exposure. And then she meets another man, and her life changes. At times Edith tries to conform, with a (third) conventional marriage, including an uneasy role as stepmother but she remains on the fringes of power, with contacts and connections, with little direct influence. Frederick’s story brings the history of Communism in Australia to life. Frederick and Edith are quite different, but they both fight Menzies’s attempt to ban the Communist Party. And Ambrose, who returns to Britain, is still part of Edith’s circle.
I enjoyed the way Mr Moorhouse overlays Edith’s life over the development of Canberra and emergence of an Australian identity. This is a novel in which small details are as important as the larger backdrop. The attention Edith pays to the organisation of her office, and of her desk, and the details of a party at University House contrast with the wider political issues and the building of Canberra.
I have not yet read the first two books in this trilogy ‘Grand Days’ and ‘Dark Palace’. I will because I am intrigued.