The word that comes to mind when I think about Cole and Utopian Man itself is ‘charming’. How could you not love an eccentric like Edward Cole, purveyor of books in the magical Cole’s Book Arcade, a man who would rather invest in rainbows than land? (I might be biased here: I organise my bookshelf as a rainbow based on the colour of book spines!) I say man rather than character (although he was certainly the latter) because Cole was a real person who lived in Melbourne in the late 1800s-early 1900s. The aptly titled Utopian Man brings his remarkable life, well, to life. The title is an apt one for he was more than just a fancier of whimsy; he was a man of some vision. He railed against the White Australia Act and the racism it sanctioned. He saw this racism first-hand when pamphlets he had published and distributed in his store came back to him with scorn and sometimes spit. He was disappointed in his friend Deakin, whom he had known before he became Prime Minister, because Deakin was a supporter of the Act.
We first encounter Edward in a prologue in which he is recuperating after illness in old age:
He instructed the gardener to plant a seventy-foot floral rainbow, a sweeping curve of petunias, marigolds and pansies. When it was finished, he asked Eddy to construct a series of mirrors, like a periscope, so he could see the coloured flowers from his bed.
This sets the tone for much of the story, taking in Edward’s troubled past on the goldfields—where he made some money with a Chinese partner, Lucky Cho, whose memory stalks Edward like a ghost—through to his book arcade and the ‘Wonderland’ he creates therein. Along the way he advertises for a wife in the Herald, which proves a success, and he soon marries Eliza. They have a bevy of beautiful children. Their social life is somewhat curtailed, owing to Edward’s preference for the arcade and for family, but they move in the circles of powerful businessmen like Edward’s friend, D’Ama, who is always around to advise on aspects of business.
Trouble looms in the form of a great recession. Banks and businesses and land speculators go bust. One of their circle of loose friends, Mr Endicott, shoots himself and forces his wife, Joy, to make money by dubious means, including the running of séances. Edward ignores the problems with his own business when Ruby, his youngest, dies of scarlet fever. The pain both Edward and Eliza feel is palpable. Eliza seeks solace in the séances. Things get interesting when, during the séance, Joy runs her hand down Edward’s leg when everyone’s eyes are closed and tells him to think about having an affair. She then inveigles herself into Eliza’s good books and life by claiming that she can see a white bird above Eliza’s head. This forces Edward into a nice dilemma. Joy brings some comfort to the shattered Eliza but he doesn’t want her near them because of her offer. Meanwhile, Edward finds his own way of handling the loss of his child: he talks to her on the rooftop of the arcade.
There is much to like in Edward’s response to things, and the way he forges ahead with plans to expand the many-faceted attractions of the arcade when D’Ama is advising him to get out before things get really bad. We fear that Edward’s aloofness from the realities of life and business mean that he is heading toward financial ruin. When he does turn his attention to the running of the business, he is unable to see a different disaster looming for one of his children.
I first came across both Utopian Man and Lisa Lang at a session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival where she gave a reading and discussed her novel along with the other Vogel contenders of that year. So reading the actual book gave me a feeling of coming home to something, a pleasant déjà vu. This sensation was no doubt assisted by a lovely interview with Lisa Lang that Angela Myer did for her blog, Literary Minded, which I saw a few days before reading the book. (The video is the one half of the first instalment of what will become a series of author interviews. Go and take a peek here.) Another reason for my response was the resonances Utopian Man has with Peter Carey’s Illywhacker – a personal favourite of mine in which the protagonist, Herbert Badgery, ends up with this marvellous arcade of animals and other curios in Sydney—an establishment very reminiscent of Cole’s Book Arcade. (I’d love to know whether Carey knew of Cole when he wrote Illywhacker.)
You might also like to check out Lang’s responses to Lisa Hill’s list of author questions in her ‘Meet an Aussie Author’ series at ANZLitLovers.
I quite enjoyed Utopian Man, a story about an idealist. Edward Cole is my kind of person. His prognostication that the White Australia policy would one day fail has come to pass. In many respects we’ve come a long way since those days; in others we’ve perhaps got a ways to go. Where are our modern-day Utopian Men and Women?
I’ll leave the last word to Cole, who imparts some sage advice toward the end of the book:
Remember, books are never destinations, they are adventures, so have as many of them as you can.
Utopian Man by Lisa Lang
Source: the bookshelf rainbow