BOOK REVIEW: Utopian Man (Lisa Lang, A&U)

What a delightful novel! Utopian Man is the story of E W Cole, the creator of the legendary Cole’s Book Arcade in 19th-century Melbourne, and the author of Cole’s Funny Picture Book. This book traces his path after he came to Australia from the UK; from the goldmines, to his adventure on the Murray collecting seeds of native flora, to selling pies on Melbourne’s streets, before starting a career as a bookseller. But of course, Cole was no ordinary bookseller. Advertising for a wife, and marrying ‘the only serious applicant’, Cole went on to build a legendary bookshop, with a rainbow across its façade, staff dressed in red velvet and live music. In expanding the store over the years, he installed a lush fernery and a cage of monkeys. Lisa Lang paints a vivid picture of a visionary who sought to bring joy to Melburnians through his exuberant Book Arcade, bringing to life his idealistic and eccentric ideas with little regard for convention. He applied this independent spirit to his principles, writing a pamphlet against the White Australia policy just as it was being implemented. Lang also delves into his sorrow at the loss of one of his children, and the demons that drove him to achieve what he did. Utopian Man is the joint winner of the 2009 Vogel prize.

Kabita Dhara is a former bookseller and the publisher of new imprint Brass Monkey Books. This review first appeared in the September issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

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