Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 1, 2018

What the Light Reveals (2017), by Mick McCoy

I had mostly great reading while on holiday on Norfolk Island, and I’ve got a few reviews to catch up on but I’m going to start with this one because it’s such an interesting book.

What the Light Reveals by Melbourne author Mick McCoy is a Cold War ‘spy’ novel with a difference.  While the book is a little bit overburdened with issues, it deals with a paranoia that we recognise in the 21st century, that is, a fear and rejection of nonconformist political opinions, and also the harm that is done by sensationalist media reporting.  This is the blurb:

In an increasingly divided and intolerant world, What the Light Reveals is a beacon: a novel that brilliantly captures the sometimes devastating consequences of individual belief. Conrad is falsely accused of passing military secrets to the Russians. His life and that of his family is turned upside down by discrimination and fear. Unemployed, misrepresented by the media, betrayed by relatives and threatened by strangers, Conrad sees no choice but to uproot his family from their homeland to start a new life in Moscow.
It is also the story of Ruby, and of her and Conrad’s adopted son Alex, and biological son Peter, and of the tension and intrigue that confronts them and shapes their lives in two countries. Russia lives and breathes in McCoy’s superb evocation of it, but Australia is never far away. As Peter says, ‘Tell me again why we’re still here?’Told with suspense and rich in characterisation and surprising plot twists, this is a novel of both heart and intellect, a book about the need to belong, about what a family is and why we all need one.

Based loosely on the real life story of McCoy’s aunt and uncle, What the Light Reveals begins with a summons for Conrad Murphy to appear before the Royal Commission into Espionage during the Cold War.  This first part of the book is exceptionally good at evoking the era, not least when Conrad’s train is becalmed for 24 hours somewhere out bush near Wagga Wagga because a plague of locusts has damaged the engine.  His wife back in Melbourne’s Richmond doesn’t know why he hasn’t rung her as expected, the landlady in Sydney doesn’t know why he’s late, and the meeting he was supposed to have with his lawyer ends up being a brief consultation just before they go into the court.

The kangaroo court proceedings are no more than a fishing expedition, but the damage to Conrad’s reputation is extreme.  He is a Communist, but because he doesn’t go out of his way to tell people that, the media portrays him as a person with something to hide, and the innuendo that he is a spy translates into social and job discrimination, and a huge breach within the family.  From being a successful engineer who’d done his bit during WW2, Conrad and his wife Ruby are not just ostracised but also plunged into poverty because Conrad can’t get the sort of work he used to do.  This little known Royal Commission into Espionage was part of the fallout over the Petrov Affair, and for individuals hauled before it, it appears to have had effects not dissimilar to McCarthyism.

For Conrad, who genuinely believes in socialism, the solution to their travails is to relocate to Moscow, along with their two sons Alex and Peter.  This part of the novel is unremittingly grim: bitterly cold, dingy, dreary and punctuated by tedious attendance at Soviet public events of the sort we used to see on TV during the Cold War.  Ruby and the boys are less enthusiastic about the Soviet Dream, and their narrations reveal the stresses and strains of unhappy migration that lead to fractures in their family life.  It is in intimate aspects of their personal lives that the plot becomes overburdened with issues: adoption and sibling rivalry; coming-of-age angst including teenage love; betrayal including infidelity; plus two devastating tragedies – all laced together by distrust and dishonesty.

This flaw, however, doesn’t detract overall from the convincing pattern of suspicion and surveillance in both countries.  The techniques of Soviet surveillance are well-known to us from literature and film, but less well-known – or perhaps forgotten – is how thuggery and intimidation, both official and unofficial, operated in the West as well.  This novel is a welcome addition to a growing number of Australian books exploring Cold War history, such as Document Z by Andrew Croome, by The Memory Room by Christopher Koch, and Katherine Brabon’s The Memory Artist.  The lessons for our time are obvious, and What the Light Reveals is a fine example of the human cost of press ideology and the abuse of judicial processes for political purposes.

Author: Mick McCoy
Title: What the Light Reveals
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2017
ISBN: 9780995409873
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge


  1. Sounds interesting Lisa. There have been a lot of films, mostly overseas of course, about the Cold War (and spying in particular), and all those spy novels, but it’s interesting seeing, as you say, more literary fiction starting to appear.

    Re thuggery in the West, it reminds me of the point made a few times by Jan Wallace Dickinson in The sweet hills of Florence, about the fact that no “sides” in WW2 were angels. And, of course, the woman protagonists themselves admit they’d become killers. We sometimes like to kid ourselves that we’re “the good guys” but that’s rather naive, eh?


    • Yes, I think that’s true. What makes the difference in some (but not all) wars, is the intent. What was done in the fight against Nazism is less culpable than what was done, say, in Vietnam.


      • Yes, agreed. Whenever I start to say I’m a pacifist, I then question myself about the Holocaust, and wonder …


        • Yes. WW2 is the war that I think is a Just War, and all the others are a waste of human life for no good reason at all.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. WWII is the only one I could imagine enlisting for. Until your and Sue’s remarks above I would only have thought about preventing invasion by the Japanese, though I know many were motivated to fight Nazism. I think the Americans were horrified to find themselves on the same side as the ‘reds’ and redirected their (and our) attentions to what they regarded as the real enemy at the earliest possible opportunity.


    • Well, whatever anyone thinks about other motives that came into play as well, WW2 was ultimately about defending western civilisation and its values against fascism. If Britain hadn’t stood up against Germany (and shamed the US into joining the effort) and Germany had taken over Europe and probably defeated Russia too because it wouldn’t have been fighting on two fronts, the world would have been a very scary place – an isolationist US and the Nazis in control of all of Europe.

      The US has conveniently forgotten that it was the Reds turned the tide against Germany at Stalingrad and paved the way for D-Day.


  3. […] What the Light Reveals, by Mick McCoy […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: