Ned Manning – Painting the Light

Broadcast Books, Australia, 2022
Cover design, artwork and internal design by Daniel New

This historical novel spans the period in Australian history from pre-World War 2 into the 1950s. It is inspired by the life of the author’s parents, drawing heavily on their experiences on the land and in wartime, and then in the political sphere of Labor politics.

Ned Manning talks to Barbie about Painting the Light

The book is told from both male and female perspectives with main characters Nell and Alec, but notable is the author’s keen perception of the challenges women faced at this time.

Both main characters come from farming families, but Nell longs to escape the drudgery and sameness of farm life for the artistic world – for a short time she manages to live a Bohemian life and work as a painter in Paris, but the onset of war changes all of that.

Alec also has a farming background but is university educated and of a scholarly bent. However, he takes on a property and the problems of drought and land management. His employment of an Aboriginal man and his family and his capacity to learn from them is remarkable for the time. However, he then goes off to fight, first in the Middle East and then in New Guinea.

In the midst of this, Nell and Alec meet again and marry, Nell becoming pregnant rather too soon for an easy life. She has to manage alone for much of the early years of her first child, and then again when the second is born.  The author paints a vivid and sympathetic picture of the hardships she and other women faced at this time and especially in an isolated country environment.

Alec’s gradual entry into politics and espousal of the Labor party dominate the latter part of the story. The personal impact of this is that friends fall away and Nell is once again lonely and isolated, but nevertheless prevails. It’s a testament to her strength of character that she overcomes all the petty slights along with the emotional and practical difficulties thrown her way.

This book is very much a story of the way our nation has developed and changed in the 20th century and hence the influences that have led us to where we are today. It’s a piece of social history, clothed in a fiction, but full of detail and information worthy of further investigation by the reader.

The author’s background in script writing shines through in his easy handling of the plentiful dialogue. The conversations carry much of the plot and cleverly reveal character.

This is a dense read, unapologetic in its inclusion of the minutiae and machinations of the times. It provides insight into the struggles of the individual as well as the power mongering of rural organisations and political parties.

Politics is never far from the minds of those of us who call Canberra home and it is refreshing to read a story in which altruism leads a character to seek a political career. The scenes with Chifley are especially nicely drawn.

There is no doubt that this work was personally significant to its author as homage to his parents, but its tackling of many important social issues and its attention to factual detail also elevate it in the historical fiction genre. It’s a read that deserves the time it needs to absorb its sweeping span.

Thank you to Broadcast Books for my review copy, DMCPR for connecting us and Ned for an informative and interesting book chat.