Painting the Light: A novel

Ned Manning

Broadcast Books  RRP $29.99

Ned Manning’s novel Painting the Light invokes an Australian past that starts on the eve of World War II and moves through the twentieth century’s greatest turbulence, into the early post war years. The broad sweep of this setting is honed between the intimacy of two lives; his protagonists, Nell Hope and Alec Murray are, like the Australia they live in, struggling to attain a stronger sense of self and independence.

The novel’s beautiful cover encapsulates the overarching trajectory of Manning’s story; two young people, infused with the optimism and energy of youth, inhabit an expansive land filled with possibility. On the cover they are small silhouettes facing a sky that is vividly lit with sunrise or sunset. The image is ambivalent because the expansive possibilities they yearn for are in conflict with the constraints of tradition and the strength of those who hold onto power. This ambivalence between hope and constraint generates the novel’s tension and draws the reader into the momentum of Nell’s and Alec’s lives.

In the early chapters, Manning paints an earlier, considerably more elegant version of the contemporary gap year, as eighteen-year-old Nell moves to Paris – a bohemian world of berets, wine and romance. She is there to pursue her emerging talent for painting, until the looming war and a telegram from her father sends her back to the vast dry paddocks where her family’s wealth rides upon the sheep’s back. Alec Murray pursues independence in Australia, attempting to farm in Coonabarabran, free from his father’s conservatism. The war, however, will transport him into the danger that Nell has been forced to leave. While the early chapters move between the two, the reader anticipates that Nell and Alec will meet. On the precipice of war, the farewelling of young men brings them together and they fall in love. 

Manning takes the reader into Alec’s war experiences and their transformational power. Confronted with war’s horror, Alec seeks redemption in political ideas that he believes endorse humanity. When he returns to Australia, he strengthens his belief in egalitarian notions and pursues their political expression in Ben Chifley’s Labor Party. Manning explores the heated conflict between conservative and progressive forces in post-war Australia and for Alec, the division this creates with his staunchly conservative father. Alec also returns to marriage with Nell, a young family and a farm that offers all the beauty and recalcitrance of the Australian landscape.

While Nell supports her husband’s political aspirations, her love for Alec and her three sons is passionate and strong, but her own life is shrinking. The reader is reminded that post-war Australia was not generous in its offerings to women. Alec’s mother, Daphne, is a background character, but the reader sees enough to understand how her strength must give way to the traditional power of her less competent husband. 

As the writer acknowledges, Painting the Light is based on the lives of his parents. Manning recreates their world with a realism that many will recognise as a not too distant past, even if we did not inhabit it. We can recognise it in the lived experiences of our parents and grandparents. And perhaps most interestingly, we recognise it in the tensions that continue to shape Australia. Manning grapples with the elusive past and captures the world of his parents and their quest for transformation. In the heart of this novel, there is also an understanding that their story remains connected to contemporary Australia. The past is less elusive when we acknowledge its intimacy with who we are now. Painting the Light does this with clarity and conviction.

Debra Barford 

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