Lang’s award-winning debut is a delight, as a novel, as biography, and as history. Based on the life of Edward Cole, Utopian Man is the story of a hard-working freethinker in late 19th-century Australia who built a bookstore empire out of his earnings from a lemonade stand.
Cole immigrated to Australia from England, thinking to make his fortune in the gold fields. Violence and racism sent him fleeing to Melbourne, though, where he peddled a variety of wares and educated himself at the public library. Inspired to give others a path to knowledge and to build a real community out of the increasingly diverse population—in politics, ethnicity, and social strata—he began selling books, eventually opening the wildly successful Cole’s Book Arcade. Visitors could read for hours without being pressured to purchase; entertainment of every sort was to be had, from music to games to funhouse mirrors.
The novel explores Cole’s personal life, including the dark secret from his days in the gold fields as well as his philosophies of religion and diversity. He married late, after finally deciding to advertise for a wife in the newspaper. Eliza replied, and they had a happy marriage with a lively bunch of children. His life was not all success, however: family tragedy and increasing pressure from local politicians with visions of empire rather than unity both weighed on him over the years. Cole finally has to come to terms with what he sees as his failures, and Lang excels in these darker moments just as she does in the lighter ones.