A referendum in Australia in 1951 under the conservative Menzies government asked “Should the Communist Party be banned in Australia?” It was narrowly defeated. But the fear of Communism remained alive and well, and when a Russian embassy staff member, Vladimir Petrov, defected in 1954 a Royal Commission was set up to track down his associates in Australia and root out any undercover agents. It was bad luck for Mick McCoy’s uncle that his name appeared in one of the documents Petrov provided. Like Conrad Murphy in the novel, he was a member of the Party but no more, an idealist but certainly not an undercover agent. He was questioned by the Royal Commission and never charged, but merely appearing before the Commission was enough to damn him in the eyes of the public, with the help of a sensation-mongering media and a Commission that made no pretence of due process. He lost his job and could not get another, and he and his family were shunned by neighbours and attacked by thugs. In the end they were driven out of Australia and ended up in Moscow, where at least he could make a living, of sorts.
Rich material like this, and a family connection, doesn’t always translate to a successful novel, but Mick McCoy has got what it takes. This is life in Brezhnev’s Russia:
For the next fifteen minutes, as drizzle swirled and gusted, he glared at the unbroken row of squat, boxlike apartment blocks, all mustard and tan, stucco and brick and concrete slab, on the east flank of Leninski Prospekt. Square, stark. Fast and cheap to build. Whole neighbourhoods of them. Five floors high, five apartments wide and two deep, open stairwells and claustrophobic central corridors and narrow balconies. Small homes with small rooms and stingy windows and hollow doors, just like the one his family lived in. They continued to appear, these blocks, clustering into neighbourhoods before the streets they lined were sealed or had names. They seemed old and timeworn as soon as they were built. (103)
In spite of dreadful housing and food, a dead-end job and constant surveillance, for the next thirteen years Conrad clings to his belief that he made the right choice, in sharp contrast with his wife Ruby:
He couldn’t disentangle the practice of government from its ideals, whereas Ruby knew that any government, unchallenged, cared less for ideals than for power. (159)
This idea is at the centre of the book. It’s not only governments that can’t separate practice and ideals – human beings often can’t either. We all know the personal tragedies an idealist can inflict on those nearest to him. But even Ruby isn’t fully aware of the impact on her two sons of decisions that she and Conrad made out of the best motives. What matters in the end, they find, is not political ideals or social theories but the here-and-now of our closest relationships.
It’s fascinating in the detail, the insight and the suspense, but what really stood out for me was McCoy’s control and pacing of the unfolding story. Very, very impressive. I really hope it gets the attention it deserves. Here’s a review from one of the better papers: