Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Ned Manning is a writer, actor and teacher. He is well known for his teaching memoir, Playground Duty which has become required reading for anyone interested in the real world of teaching. He has written over twenty plays many of which have been performed in schools around Australia.
Painting the Light is his latest contribution to the world of literature and is loosely based on the lives of his parents. Nell Hope and Alec Murray are inventions of his imagination, but he has used memories, anecdotes, and research into family history to produce this story around them. The cover of the book is unusual as it is a painting linking to Nell’s story. Nell would love to use her artistic skills to paint but life intervenes, often leaving her frustrated. The word ‘Light’ on the cover translates in the story to reaching for the light or searching for light. This time in Australia’s history saw a change in attitude in younger people, even though, in their earlier years, they may have benefited from their family’s wealth. They wanted a renaissance, to move away from long held views. Their goal was social change, a more equitable society.
The early lives of Nell and Alec are told, alternately, in what comes across as diary entries because the chapters vary from only 2 to 8 pages in length and highlight incidents which made a great impact on each of them individually at the time. With the announcement that Australia was at war, Alec packed his bag to do his duty (Chapter 21). Nell’s time in Paris ended abruptly when she received a telegram from her father telling her to ‘come home at once. Ticket booked’ (Chapter 3).
The time period of this novel is between 1936 and 1951 and portrays society in Australia at the time. Many people were struggling, either from drought or after returning from the war. Those left behind while the war raged in Europe and to the north of our shores also faced many challenges. Manning particularly wanted to highlight the women who often married men they barely knew only to have them depart for long periods of time into the various theatres of war.
Australia’s involvement in World War Two is gleaned through Alec’s experiences and Nell’s life is a cameo for the women on the home front. She had felt imprisoned on her family’s merino stud in central western New South Wales and tried to escape as often as she could. She hated it when she had to give up her passion for painting and revert to apprentice jillaroo when her brother went to war. Yet when she fell in love, she once again had to give up what she loved to do, for the sake of her husband and growing family.
Both Nell and Alec were progressive in their thinking, wanting a better more inclusive world for everyone. Alec became one of the youngest people to represent his district at the Graziers’ Council meeting in Sydney and later he went on to earn a safe seat in the parliament. Full of courage, Alec spoke up about the exploitation of striking abattoir workers by the “rich cockies”. His and Nell’s determination to bring about a change and a fair deal for everyone was to see them ridiculed and shunned even by their own families. There was the paranoia of Communism from the older entrenched members of society who wished to retain the status quo.
Manning, in an interview for A Tea Break with Mrs B on 21st May 2022, revealed that this is a story that has been with him all his life. Finally, by writing it as a novel, he was able to let his imagination fly with the characters whist sticking to the facts that frame the narrative.
He said that the main theme of his book was Idealism. A belief that we can all strive to create a better world. The choices made by Alec and Nell were all motivated by their ideals, even when these threatened their own personal comfort. Neither was motivated by self-interest.
Ned Manning has provided a historical romance in his novel Painting the Light. It is a love story of two young Australians who sacrificed their dreams in the hope of never seeing such a catastrophe as a world war ever happening again. It is an interesting read.
Painting the Light
By Ned Manning