Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 9, 2011

Utopian Man, by Lisa Lang (2009 Vogel joint winner)

Utopian ManI romped through this book in a just a few hours and as a work of light fiction I enjoyed it.  Utopian Man weaves its way into the mind as if the ideas within were memory rather than the author’s cunning invention.  It fills the reader with nostalgia for a time too long ago for any of us to remember – and yet it seems impossibly familiar because the images are so vivid and clear…

Lisa Lang’s debut novel was co-winner of the Vogel Literary Award in 2009 (with Night Street by Kristel Thornell,  see my review); the same books were also shortlisted for the 2011 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.  Having now read both these novels I can see what a difficult task the judges must have had  – these authors both chose to create fiction from the lives of authentic figures in Melbourne’s history.  Utopian Man is based on the more well-known life of E.W. Cole, the eccentric entrepreneur who enlivened Marvellous Melbourne of the 1880s with his astonishing book arcade.  (Some items from which you can still see at the Melbourne Museum’s online collection and you can see how impressive the arcade was here).

Lang’s novel is especially pleasing to read at a time when the very existence of the book is being challenged.   On the brink of opening his bookstore that would in time be said to be the biggest in the world, Edward Cole remembers his awe when he first encountered books en masse:

He was twenty-five the first time he entered a large public library, and was almost flattened by the weight of his own ignorance.  There was just so much there.  He had hoped to find a book on carpentry; there were more than a dozen.  He chose one at random, his hands grey against the paper despite the cake of soap the library provided.  He was sleeping in the street then, living in a world of dark and narrow lanes, and the sudden excess of light and space and knowledge was brutal.  He felt exposed to its glare, grubby and uncouth.  He slid the volume back.  There was shame in the way he dropped his head, his hand trailing columns on the way out.  But by looking down he saw a simple plaque, missed on entering, which read for the people of the city. It stopped him in his tracks.  The people of the city – wasn’t that him?  It was true he was grimy, ignorant and all the rest, but that library was there for him. He could read any book he liked.  He could read all day, every day, if he chose.  Nothing was stopping him.  Nothing! The power of this thought was dizzying: the world spread before him.  (p8)

In those days, the era of Mechanics Institutes and Libraries, books and reading were the key to social mobility (except for the lucky few who struck it rich on the Goldfields.)  For a poor man, access to books was a way of getting an education and career options otherwise denied to him.  Books were not just one form of entertainment competing for attention with a huge range of other options as they are today.

So book-lovers are bound to feel well-disposed towards this story about Melbourne’s greatest bookseller of all time!

Ranging back and forth in time, Lang shows us how this most interesting man gets his start on the goldfields and how he survives the economic bust in the 1890s by being ever more daring in his exotic ideas.  He builds a bookshop so large that the arcade eventually stretches from Bourke St to Collins St, filling it with what is claimed to be more than a million books.  He holds band performances to attract customers, he has a menagerie of animals, (real stuffed and mechanical), he creates a resort-like atmosphere with palms and a Chinese tea-rooms, and he has a loyal staff that he treats with integrity.  His friendships with other men include the father of Federation Alfred Deakin,  a friendship put under stress when as Prime Minister Deakin supported the White Australia Policy and Cole ostentatiously did not.  Instead, in the face of a hostile populace, he has an enduring friendship with the Chinaman Quong Tart, employs Chinese waiters in his tea-rooms and writes pamphlets opposing the policy after a visit to Japan.  More significantly he has residual guilt about his role in the death of  the Chinaman Lucky Cho, with whom he had worked the Goldfields, the details of which are not revealed until the very end.

So yes, he’s idealised a bit.  He is head of a large family with whom conflict is rare, brief and well-mannered.  A stern Victorian paterfamilias he is not.  He loves his children devotedly – even when one lets him down – and their characterisation is a delight.  He is a loving husband too and Eliza, a bride acquired through a newspaper advert, supports his idealism throughout their long marriage.  He is kind-hearted, forgiving, and generous, but the novel manages to create some light tension and moral ambiguity with temptations put in his way, not least in the form of the merry-widow character of Joy Endicott.

As Angela Mayer has noted, it’s not a pretentious novel.  That might be another way of saying that it’s modest in its aims but Lang’s interest in race relations is an indication that she may tackle bigger issues in future work.  With her obvious talent for writing and meticulous research it would be great to see her take Anne Summers’ advice for women writers at the Stella Awards launch and tackle significant contemporary issues in her next book.

Danielle Mulholland at MC Reviews thought that despite Lang’s tendency to romanticise Cole’s story… Utopian Man… ‘is a feel-good experience… [which]… revives the spark of idealism in even the worst of cynics and opens up a world of possibilities.

If you’re quick, you may be able to catch the Book Reading on ABC Radio National.

Update 10 Oct 2011:

I see from today’s Matilda that Utopian Man was also the People’s Choice winner in the 2011 WA Premier’s Awards – and no wonder!

Update 4 May 2012:

See also John’s review at Musings of a Literary Dilettante.

Author: Lisa Lang
Title: Utopian Man
Publisher: Allen and Unwin 2010
ISBN: 9781742373348
Source: Personal library, purchased from Top Titles, Brighton, $23.99

Availability:
Fishpond: Utopian Man


Responses

  1. A great review Lisa. Usually nostalgic biographical novels leave me cold, but your balanced and well structured review has me curious now…

    Thank you.

    • Thanks, Rebecca! Great to see you here:)

  2. Sometimes a good old fashioned page turner is great and a book shop owner be a good subject for a book in my opinion , I love finishing a book in a single sitting so very satisfying all the best stu

    • Thanks for dropping by, Stu: we do love our books about books, don’t we? Maybe I should do a blog post about that one day….

  3. I saw Lisa Lang speak about and read from her book at the Sydney Writers Festival this year. I thought the premise of her story seemed really interesting. I had never heard of Mr Cole, but I love the idea of someone advertising for a wife in the newspaper, and I love even more the fact that someone would respond and actually the marry man! But somehow there was something that still held me back from reading it. This is the first review I have read of the book and it was certainly a positive one, so I might keep an eye out for a chance to read this in the future.

  4. The other night at my library, Lisa Lang was there as a guest speaker talking about her novel Utopian Man. Living in Melbourne and owning some Cole’s books, it was of real interest to me. She was excellent, Lisa was very pleasant and took time out to converse with all and answered lots of questions.

    Meg

    • That would have been terrific, Meg. Did Lisa Lang say if she was working on another novel?

  5. Yes, she is working on short stories as well as another novel. It took her six years to write Utopian Man. She began writing a non-fiction story on Cole for her Masters which she didn’t finish, but did finish both non-fiction and fiction on Cole. Lisa would be an ideal person for you to interview.

    • I’d love to have her on Meet an Aussie Author.
      It’s just a matter of getting in touch: unless I somehow know the author personally I rely on their publishers to pass on the invitation, and then on the author to get back to me. I always think I’m very lucky when they do, because they’re all so busy!


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