Title: What the Light Reveals
Author: Mick McCoy
Published: March 2018
Publisher: Transit Lounge
In a time when Russia looms large in the news and the President of the United States is compared to Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon, picking up Mick McCoy’s What the Light Reveals felt unexpectedly appropriate.
While fiction, the novel is based on the experiences of McCoy’s aunt and uncle, Bernice and Dave Morris. Active Communists, they fled from Australia to Russia after the Petrov Affair in the 1950s with their two adopted sons. The novel compares the Russia of the late 1950s and 1960s with Australia and explores how each nation struggled to deal with difference and achieve acceptance.
Despite the backdrop of the the Cold War, this is a personal narrative that abstains from high politics. What the Light Reveals is a timely reminder of what we – as individuals and Australians – are capable of doing to people of different beliefs. The simplicity of the first chapters are a delight to read: restrained, understated and yet evocative.
However, the quiet power of the opening does not last until the end. I felt as if I were reading two separate novels as the intimate exploration of the private lives of peaceful Australian Communists faded into a loveless and predictable family drama.
As a reader, I felt uncomfortable (and honestly a little disturbed) by the acknowledgements, where McCoy admits to changing a fundamental part of the real life story: in this fictionalised account, the elder son is adopted while the younger is their biological child. While it is an author’s prerogative to change details, this change – and more specifically, the plot that revolves around it and dominates the second half of the novel – left me cold.
Bernice Morris wrote her own memoir, Between the Lines, and I find myself wondering what she would have thought of the change.
Nevertheless, McCoy does have a way with words. Sentences like ‘They are not going to accuse you of journalism, Conrad’ and ‘On a clear day you could see not only for miles but for centuries’ will stay with me.
What the Light Reveals is McCoy’s third novel, following Burning Sunday (shortlisted for the 1999 Age Fiction Prize) and Cutting Through Skin.