Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 304 pages; 2015.
Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World is a deeply melancholy novel about emigration, marriage and motherhood. It was recently longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize, but did not make the cut, yet I found it a deeply moving story and one that I’m sure I will remember for a long time.
Looking for a new life
The story begins in England. It’s 1963, and Charlotte lives with her Anglo-Indian husband Henry and their two young daughters in a cute, but damp, cottage in rural Cambridgeshire. But all is not well. Henry is restless — he’s sick of the endlessly wet English weather and their too-small home — while Charlotte is grieving for the loss of her earlier life as a painter now that she’s a new, energy-deprived mother.
So when a brochure arrives through the letterbox offering assisted passage for those seeking a new life in Australia (what are known as “£10 poms”), it looks like an opportunity to grab with both hands. Yet Charlotte takes a lot of convincing — she’s deeply connected to the countryside around her and doesn’t mind the damp — but eventually, in a kind of relentless wearing down of wills, agrees to go.
But their new life in Perth isn’t all it is cracked up to be. It’s hot. It’s lonely. There’s latent racism as the locals struggle to place Henry because his accent doesn’t match his skin colour. But in the initial few months they both make an effort to “give it a go”:
Habit is the only thing that can travel from one side of the world to the other and remain intact. He makes her morning cup of tea. She brings him her dinner. She lets him wash her back because he’s always washed her back, because such gestures involve a complex system of kindness and gratitude, assumed even when not deserved.
But as time moves on and nothing much changes, Charlotte makes it clear that she wants to return to England. She feels absolutely no affection for Australia:
It would make life easier to feel this — to feel real affection for this new place. It would make Henry happy. But she is afraid —without clear reason — that it would necessarily lessen her feelings for home. As if there were only so much affection,so much loyalty, to be portioned out. It is the same kind of fear, she realises, that she felt when pregnant with May. Would she have enough love for a second child? Would it mean giving up some of the love for her first? How mad that seems now — the foolishness of not seeing, not knowing, that such love simply doubles, triples, quadruples as required. Unless one refuses, of course — unless one resists.
But this is 1963. International travel of any kind is expensive and the couple cannot afford the boat ticket home. And Henry doesn’t want to go anyway: he likes the heat and the light, which reminds him of his childhood in India, and he’s relishing the chance to make his mark as a professor of literature. This creates new tensions in their marriage, for what Henry wants and what Charlotte wants are two entirely different things.
This is very much a character driven novel rather than a plot-based one, but perhaps the best bit about it is the languid, sensual prose and the evocative descriptions of the natural world — whether of the fens of East Anglia, the rural fringes of Western Australia or the jungles of India. Bishop is very good at metaphor, too, and I loved this small passage which can only be a metaphor for Charlotte losing her husband:
That evening she watches Henry tend the roses. He has cured them of rust and mite and now they flourish and grow up past his waist. There is a breeze and the flowers sway. Henry is tall, his long arms reaching over to check the buds. In his blue shirt he is the same colour as the dusk. She watches him fade.
The emotions of a young woman wrestling with motherhood are beautifully evoked — and heartbreaking to read — and one can’t help but wonder whether Charlotte’s situation could be alleviated by a visit to her GP. She’s clearly homesick, but she’s also raising two children without a support network upon which to fall and seems unable shake off her melancholy mood. She’s a little cold and stand offish, and isn’t the kind of character to which a reader warms, but her pain and anguish seem all too real. I couldn’t help but wonder whether her emotional distress was heightened by her inability to express herself in her usual way — through painting. When she does, eventually, take up the brush again it opens up a whole new world — and one that is not necessarily compatible with the one Henry has carved out for her.
It’s hard to say much more without ruining the plot, but there are some aspects of the novel towards the later stage that felt slightly implausible to me. Yet The Other Side of the World is a rather brilliant book that captures that sense of nostalgia and homesickness that every emigrant feels. It’s a quietly devastating read about a young married couple trying to find their way in the world, and is as much a portrait of misguided love and thwarted dreams than anything else.