Grand Days by Frank Moorhouse Picador $119 I DISLIKED Edith Berry the moment we met. Some reviewers - men, mostly - say she's smart, sexy and the kind of woman that actresses would brawl to play in a movie. I found her self-opinionated, utterly self-absorbed and very much the creation of a man. If, indeed, this is actress-brawling material, the shortage of good female film roles has reached crisis proportions. Within 50 pages I was more at ease with Berry - or rather, Edith Campbell Berry, as she decided to be known on leaving Australia to become an 'international woman' - and her ways of Doing Things, her Life Tactics, her continual, self-centred analysis of everything from the minutiae of daily life to world affairs. My irritation at the constant capitalisation that accompanies her Opinions was fading. Yet my animosity was entrenched. Given that ECB dominates this mammoth book - 718 pages, including appendices - this is a fundamental obstacle to enjoying Grand Days. Odd then to say that, after a settling in period, I truly did enjoy it. I already knew of this epic project by respected Australian author Frank Moorhouse, and of the preoccupation with peacekeeping and international relations that led him to spend several years, financed by an Australian Government creative fellowship, researching the League of Nations. I also knew that Grand Days was a novel in which that research was central; the League of Nations not merely its backdrop but its backbone, with fact and fiction, real and fictitious people cleverly interwoven. I had assumed it would be the novel itself, rather than this potentially dry historical setting, which would capture my attention. In fact, the two are inseparable, with the storyline, entertaining enough though totally centred on ECB (a young officer in the League of Nations Geneva secretariat), at times secondary to the real star, the League. Almost without realising, the reader becomes caught up in the politics of the League, the machinations of its secretariat, even the hopes for this young body as the storm clouds of war begin to gather over Europe; hopes which with hindsight, seem so naive. ECB is, at first at least, the most idealistic of idealists, as at age 26 she leaves her job in Australia, where she had worked with John Latham, Australia's delegate to the League (a real person). We meet her on the Paris to Geneva train, where she takes her first lunch in a railway dining car in the company of a war-weary former British Foreign Office staffer, in his late 30s, now to be her senior in the league - and to become her lover. The fictitious Major Ambrose Westwood and his somewhat confused sexuality are to add as much to ECB's education as do her international lifestyle and multinational friends and her awakening to the behind-the-scenes dealings which are as much a part of the League as the discussions and votes of the national delegates in its public forums. With Edith, and always through her eyes, we meet key players in history, are privy to the fascinating detail behind real events, and to others which seem so real that only by consulting the 'Who is Who in the Book' in the final pages is it possible to know whether they actually took place. Some are frightening, others irritating, some seem just plain silly. It's easy now to ridicule all that the League stood for as sheer hypocrisy; to ridicule, even, Moorhouse's enthusiasm for this task. Why, one may ask in 1995, spend years of one's life reading and writing about an organisation which achieved little, which, it now seems, was doomed to fail and which was sabotaged from the outset, even by its own members? To truly appreciate Grand Days it is necessary, to an extent, to suspend cynicism and knowledge of all that has happened since. This is not as difficult as it sounds. One hundred pages in, the hopes and dreams of those involved with the League, people who lived through and fought in what was then believed to have been the Great War, seem, if still naive, at the very least, understandable. Moorhouse's book is an education and an entertainment - though caution should be exercised in using it as a history lesson. Moorhouse acknowledges the alteration of a conference date but essentially the dating is vague. Sir Eric Drummond, for instance is League Secretary-General throughout this book, apparently set through the late 1920s, yet he is listed in its Who's Who as Secretary-General 1919-22. This is both the story of a young woman, growing up in an atmosphere of international diplomacy and intrigue in one of the most important periods in modern Western history, and of that time itself.