Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 736 pages; 2018.
Grand Days, by the late Australian writer Frank Moorhouse (1938-2022), is the first in a trilogy of (chunky) novels exploring the life and times of Edith Campbell Berry, a young Australian woman making her mark in diplomatic circles on the world stage.
First published in 1993, but set in the 1920s, this novel charts Edith’s early career at the newly created League of Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland.
It’s an enormously detailed look at office politics and corporate life through the lens of a headstrong and idealistic 20-something woman whom we might now dub “before her time”. Indeed, the novel could be described that way, too, because it takes an enlightened approach to 21st-century issues including gender fluidity, female agency and independence, sexual politics and “internationalism”.
It first came to my attention via the three-part ABC TV program ‘Books That Made Us’ (screened in 2021) when it was the only book mentioned in the first episode that I hadn’t heard of ( I had already read most of the others). I’m not sure why this one passed me by — I was working as a part-time bookseller when it was published so I must have sold copies of it — but I rather suspect that even if I had taken the time to read it I would have been too young and naive to appreciate it at the time.
Fast forward 30 years, and I’m in a much better place to value (and recognise) the richly detailed world that Moorhouse has created, with its focus on the minutiae of office life, the never-ending internal politics between rival colleagues and departments, and the failed idealism at its heart.
But the novel is much more than just a historical glimpse of “corporate” conduct: it’s also a wonderful coming-of-age story about a 26-year-old woman working out who she is, what she wants from life, falling in love and discovering sex.
A journey to a new life
When the book opens, we meet Edith on the train from Paris to Geneva en route to her new post at the League of Nations, an intergovernmental organisation designed to uphold world peace following the end of the First World War. (The history of the ill-fated League, which was disbanded in 1946, and later inspired the formation of the United Nations, is expertly woven into the narrative which includes real people, identified by their real names, and is largely based on documentary sources.)
In the train’s dining car, Edith meets Major Ambrose Westwood, unaware that he will become the single-most significant figure in her life, both at the League, where they become colleagues and allies, and at home, where they become secret lovers participating in a “sexually adventurous underworld” (as the blurb on my edition describes it).
In each gloriously named chapter (for example, How Edith Berry Campbell Berry Ate Six Courses and Practised the Seven Ways in the Dining Car on the Train from Paris to Geneva, or The Tenets of Civilisation and Various Wonders Not to Be Talked Of) is like a self-contained story in its own right, which serves to move the narrative forward set-piece by set-piece. And from this, we see how Edith slowly transforms herself from a naive employee to an invaluable staff member — despite getting into various tricky predicaments with the serious potential to backfire — and inches her way up the career ladder, all the while figuring out her love life and building a solid circle of friends.
She goes through some pretty icky and challenging experiences but always manages to come out the other end stronger and more resilient than ever. But she’s also manipulative, with a head for scheming, which is probably why she is able to survive the internal machinations at work so adroitly. Not much seems to bother her. And even when her mother dies, back home in Australia, she seems remarkably unfazed by it.
Highly recommended read
Did I like this book? Yes. And no.
It’s too long and parts of it dragged. Sometimes it was a struggle to pick it up after I had put it down, and it took me the best part of three weeks to read.
But there was so much of it I enjoyed.
- The heady idealism of everyone working at the League, including Edith’s deep belief that she’s doing important work for the world
- The scheming and shenanigans and internal bickering in the office, which is so realistic even by today’s standards
- The depiction of the Geneva nightlife, the glamourous parties, the seedy clubs
- The history of the League and the people that worked there (the appendices detailing “who’s who” and some of the working practices are enlightening)
- Edith’s transformation from a naive young woman to a woman of the world, even if she makes some dubious decisions along the way
- The Australian abroad aspects, which will resonate if you have been an ex-pat for any length of time
- The biting satire that underpins the storyline, but also the many wonderful laugh-out-loud scenes
- The forward-thinking attitudes held by many of the characters
There are two more books in the series — Dark Palace, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2001, and Cold Light — which I will look forward to reading in due course.
For another take on Grand Days, please see Brona’s review at This Reading Life.
‘Grand Days’ doesn’t seem to have been published outside of Australia. Try hunting down a copy on bookfinder.com or order it directly from Australia via the independent bookstore Readings.com.au. Shipping info here.