I shudder when I come across the phrase ‘based on a true story’. (What, I wonder, is a ‘false story’?) So I was pleased to note that Ned Manning avoids the phrase to explain that Painting the Light ‘is based on fact’. His extensive research affirms the accuracy of the major events experienced by protagonists Nell Hope and Alec Murray – two people modelled on his parents. These are two people very much in love, a couple who are so idealistic they want to ‘paint the light’.
But historical accuracy is not enough to make a novel work. In the case of Painting the Light, it may have got in the way of a good story. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but that doesn’t necessarily make it more interesting.
Manning tells the reader a lot about Nell and Alec. You meet them first in the Australia of the 1930s and follow their lives together through to the early 1950s. But you can get to know a lot about a person without feeling like you really know them. In this instance, you find out what Nell and Alec do, but not so much about who they are, even though Manning often tells you what they feel and think.
Still, Painting the Light is an ambitious novel that covers a wide canvas. With Alec you experience some of the horrors of World War II and the challenge of establishing a rural property in outback New South Wales. Nell is a talented aspiring painter who faces many of the frustrations of her time. Together with her husband she strives for reform on a number of fronts. Along the way they learn a little of the problems Indigenous Australians face and quite a lot about the politics of the time.
Manning captures the moods of the different eras very well, from the period of the ‘phony war’, with young men eager to go overseas to fight, to the shocking experience of battle and the loss of friends; the problems (not yet labelled PTSD) suffered by returned soldiers; the limited roles expected of and taken by women; and the post-war boom and the hostility directed towards anyone tainted with Communism.
Those few readers who, like this reviewer, are old enough to remember the 40s and 50s will recall and recognise the Australian atmosphere of the time.
Overall Painting the Light is a good read for those who enjoy Australian historical fiction. They should not necessarily be deterred by the fact that the protagonists never fully came alive for me, as many will nevertheless find value in the vivid depictions of Australian life from a bygone era that still have an impact today.
Painting the Light, Ned Manning
Publisher: Broadcast Books