While McCarthyism has long been a go-to for American writers, the same cannot really be said of the Australian equivalent, the Petrov affair. It has been a decade since Andrew Croome’s Document Z.
Mick McCoy’s What the Light Reveals is not primarily concerned with the Petrov affair, though it takes the royal commission on espionage that followed it as its starting point. But in detailing the long-term effects of unfounded, politically motivated suspicion on a normal Melbourne family, it recalls some of the best anti-McCarthyite literature.
Conrad Murphy is a loving husband to a hard-headed wife, doting father to an adopted son, and a well-respected mechanical engineer. He also happens to be a card-carrying communist. When he’s called before the commission in 1954, he hopes against hope it will all blow over. After all, he’s not a Soviet spy, he tells his lawyer, and the Crown can’t prove he is.
It doesn’t, but the damage has been done, not least in the pages of a complicit press. Murphy’s soon struggling to find work, shunned by colleagues and family. When his wife, Ruby, gives birth to the couple’s second child – McCoy’s exploration of the effect of this on Ruby and her first son, Alex, is brutal in its honesty and central to what is to come – the family’s financial situation becomes dire. They make a drastic, and ultimately devastating, move: they pull up stumps and head to Moscow.
What follows is not a Cold War thriller, but a taut, psychologically insightful family drama that just happens to play out against the grey skies and linoleum floors of the USSR of Brezhnev – the Soviet leader described as being “more simian than any chimp”.
McCoy’s evocation of stagnation-era Moscow is stunning, capturing in rich, though never overindulgent, prose the cold, the gloom, the many literal shades of grey. The structure is similarly impressive, as the final scenes of the novel so perfectly mirror the first (ASIO men echoed by their KGB counterparts, two trains stopped in the middle of nowhere, albeit for very different reasons).
But it’s the manner in which Conrad, Ruby and Alex continue to do damage to one another, long after the Australian government has done damage to them, that is most wrenching and arresting here. Selling secrets to the Soviets is all very well and good, but it’s the ones we keep from each other that always eventually go nuclear. MD
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 24, 2018 as "Mick McCoy, What the Light Reveals".
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