2016 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, England, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Stephanie Bishop, Tinder Press

‘The Other Side of the World’ by Stephanie Bishop

The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

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.

Evocative descriptions

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.

This is my 16th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 12th for #AWW2016.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Colum McCann, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘TransAtlantic’ by Colum McCann


Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 320 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The land masses of Ireland and North America might be separated by the Atlantic Ocean but their histories are strongly linked. Colum McCann explores those connections in his latest novel, TransAtlantic, which was longlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award (to be announced on 28 May).

Multiple narratives

The book comprises three main narrative threads at key times in Ireland’s history.

The first tells the story of the first non-stop transatlantic aeroplane flight in 1919 by British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown, which landed in a peat bog in County Galway; the second focuses on African-American Frederick Douglass, a former slave turned leader of the abolitionist movement, who visits Ireland for a speaking tour just as the Great Famine begins to take a hold; and the third examines the work of Senator George Mitchell, an American politician, who played a pivotal role in the Northern Ireland Peace Process, specifically the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Linking all these real life characters are three generations of fictional women from the same family: Lily Duggan, the Dublin maid who looks after Frederick Douglass; her daughter, Emily Ehrlich, a Newfoundland reporter who covers the Alcock-Brown flight; and Emily’s daughter, Lottie, who emigrates to Northern Ireland, where she lives a rather privileged life.

Combined, the narrative threads span more than 150 years — from 1845 to 2011 — and while there are connections between the storylines and the characters, these are largely superfluous. In many ways, each thread could be read as a standalone story, but McCann chops them up and interleaves them so that the novel, as a whole, occasionally jumps backwards and forwards in time, while the locations — Dublin, New York, Belfast — also shift.

This results in a hugely ambitious novel which shows how — as one character puts it — “the tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again”.

Ambitious structure

McCann has done this kind of multi-layered narrative before. His last novel, Let the Great World Spin, which I reviewed in 2009, focused on a diverse range of characters living in New York at the time Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974. In many ways it read like a collection of short stories and didn’t feel cohesive enough to be a novel (but what would I know — it ended up winning the National Book Award and the Dublin IMPAC International Literary Award).

Perhaps the same could be argued here, but TransAtlantic, just as ambitious in structure and style, is more polished (by which I mean the links between the narrative threads are less obvious)  and it reads like a novel — and a properly entertaining and absorbing one at that. Indeed, I’d have a hard time picking out my favourite storyline because I so enjoyed each one — and there was never a moment when I thought, I wish he’d hurry up with this thread so I can get to the next one, which is sometimes a risk when an author dabbles in multiple narratives.

It certainly helps that McCann is a virtuoso when it comes to combining real lives with imagined ones. And he’s a master at historical detail, of conjuring just the right atmosphere and mood, so that you feel as if you are right there with the people he’s writing about, whether they lived 20 years ago or 100 years ago. Even his prose — and the dialogue — reflects the time period in which each storyline is set: for instance, more formal for the 19th century narrative, a little bit more relaxed and contemporary for the early 21st century narrative.

This all adds up to an accomplished, intricately crafted novel. It’s also a hugely moving one — I laughed at certain scenes and wanted to cry at others — and the opening section, which details that record-breaking transatlantic flight, is some of the most exciting and nail-biting fiction I’ve ever read.

While the rest of this rather grand, sweeping novel might not be quite as tense, it’s brimful of passion and pain, hope and humour, love and loss. In striving for impossible goals — whether it be transatlantic flight, abolition of slavery or finding peace after 30 years of violence — McCann’s characters, firmly rooted to the past, show us how we should always look to the future.

Akhil Sharma, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Setting, USA

‘Family Life’ by Akhil Sharma


Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 224 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I recently watched a documentary by British journalist Louis Theroux about patients in a Los Angeles hospital fighting for their lives.

One young man was in a coma and his prognosis was bleak: doctors said it was highly unlikely he’d ever recover and that he’d spend the rest of his life in a vegetative state. But his family had other ideas: they refused to believe he would not recover. And, lo and behold, against impossible odds, he eventually came around and could walk and talk again. Hope, it seems, can sometimes have the power to work magic.

In Akhil Sharma’s second novel, Family Life, an immigrant Indian family living in suburban America face a similar situation: their eldest son Birju, a promising young scholar, survives a tragic accident that leaves him brain damaged, blind and unable to walk or talk. He requires constant care around the clock, but his family never give up hope that he will eventually emerge unscathed from the condition that has so destroyed his life and irrevocably altered theirs.

This heartbreaking story is told from the point of view of Birju’s younger brother, Ajay, whose voice is delightfully naive and filled with petty jealousies, hopeless romanticism and a deep and abiding love for the sibling he once admired but now pities and, occasionally, despises. “After the accident, I was glad I might become an only child,” he confesses to God at one point.

Inspired by real events

I heard the author discuss this book very briefly at a Faber fiction showcase earlier in the year. He was smartly dressed and softly spoken, but little did I realise that before he’d finished his five-minute “promo” I’d have tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat.

He started off rather jolly, telling us about how his family moved from Delhi to the USA in the late 1970s, and how everything was new, exciting and filled with perplexing mod-cons — nothing like India.

But then the mood of the room changed as he quietly revealed how his elder brother hit his head on the bottom of a swimming pool one day and never fully recovered. Their new American life, so filled with hope and promise, had changed forever. Family Life is a fictionalised account of that experience.

Family faith

The book largely charts the lengths Birju’s family go to ensure he gets every opportunity to recover. If that means dealing with a long line of charlatans, religious “freaks” and dodgy “quacks”, then so be it.

But when exorbitant medical costs force the family to nurse him at home, it brings new tensions and stresses to bear. Burji’s mother never loses focus on her son — indeed, she becomes rather one-eyed about it, with unforeseen consequences — while his father loses himself in drink. Meanwhile, Ajay tries to get on with his life as best he can, often by burying his head in a book, so he can avoid thinking about his estranged parents and a brother who gets older but never better.

When an insurance pay out means Birju can be installed in a nursing home, it doesn’t neccessarily makes things easier. When Birju’s mother is introduced at a party as “the woman whose son is in a nursing home” you can practically feel the awkwardness of the situation resonate off the page:

“My son had an accident in a swimming pool,” my mother said. “He’s in a coma.” She said this shyly, as if she were sharing something precious. I became irritated. I thought, No. Birju is not in a coma. He is brain damaged. He is destroyed.
“Can he not talk at all?” the woman asked.
“No,” my mother said. Admitting this, she looked embarrassed.
“If you are in a room with him and sitting next to him, will he not know it?”
“There is no coma,” my father said. “He is not asleep. My son has his eyes open. He can’t walk or talk. My wife says this coma thing because she thinks this sounds better.”
Mrs Kohli smiled. She nodded her head proudly. “See? A parent’s love knows no shore.”

Despite the subject matter, the story is not maudlin. It’s completely free of sentiment and often filled with laugh-out-loud witticisms. For instance, Ajay and his mother tease Burji for not paying attention when they play cards by his bedside, at other times they accuse him of being lazy for never getting out of bed. It might be gallows humour, but it does show the lighter side of human nature and the methods people use to cope at times of great sadness.

As well as being a devastating account of a family plunged into a never-ending crisis, the novel is also a wonderful portrait of immigrant life, American culture and what it is to be an outsider — in all senses of the word.

It is hugely perceptive about so many different issues — dramatic change, unconditional love, friendship, sibling rivalry, marriage and grief, to name but a few — and does it with such a lightness of touch that it’s difficult not to emerge unaltered from such an intelligent and inspiring read. If nothing else, Family Life is a book about hope — of chasing it, holding it and never letting go — even if it might not work its magic in the same way it did for that family in the Louis Theroux documentary.

Family Life will be published in the UK on 1 May.

UPDATE: A couple of hours after posting this review, the London Review Bookshop tweeted a link to it. When I thanked them for doing so, I discovered that the shop is hosting an event with Akhil Sharmer and David Sedaris at the end of this month.  To find out more, or to book tickets, please visit the LRB website.

Author, Book review, Canada, Dennis Bock, Fiction, Knopf, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘Going Home Again’ by Dennis Bock


Fiction – hardcover; Knopf; 258 pages; 2013.

I’ll admit that I was in two minds about reading Dennis Bock’s Going Home Again, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. I wanted to read it, because I generally like stories about repatriation; but I also didn’t want to read it, because I know Trevor, from The Mookse and The Gripes, didn’t like it.

Yet, when I opened this book on Saturday afternoon, thinking I’d just read a couple of chapters, I found myself completely absorbed by this tale of two divorced men and their fragile relationships with those around them, and before I knew it I had almost finished the entire novel.

Moving back home

The story is narrated by Charlie Bellerose, a Canadian who has spent the best part of 20 years living in Madrid, where he is married with a 12-year-old daughter. But things are not as cosy as they first seem. Charlie and his Spanish wife are estranged, and Charlie has made the decision to return home to Toronto, where he plans to open his fifth foreign language school and start his life afresh.

And it is here in Toronto that he re-establishes contact with his older brother, Nate, with whom he has a troubled relationship. The last time he saw Nate was a decade ago — and the two have not been on speaking terms since. But things are different now — Nate seems older and wiser, even if he is going through a rather messy divorce with his wife, Monica, and he is sharing responsibility for bringing up their two sons, Titus and Quinn.

Over the course of a year, we follow Charlie’s ups and downs: his struggle to adjust to life without his daughter, whom he adores; the joy of taking on a fatherly role to Titus and Quinn, often looking after them while Nate is away on business; his reconnection with Holly, an old girlfriend, who is now happily married; and the happiness of finding a new girlfriend. As these events unfold, Bock uses flashbacks to tell Charlie’s back story: his upbringing by a kindly uncle after his parents were killed in a car crash; his life at university in which his best friend — Holly’s boyfriend — jumped off a bridge and died; his subsequent meanderings through Spain and how he met his wife; the tense, stressful — and wary — relationship he has with Nate.

The effect of this is to build up a well-rounded, and often touching, portrait of a relatively simple man leading a somewhat complicated, messy life and wondering how he ever got himself into the messes he now finds himself in — living an ocean away from his beloved daughter and finding himself caught up, once again, in his brother’s irresponsible shenanigans.

Unresolved issues

Of course, this novel isn’t perfect and there were some issues that felt unresolved to me. As a book about a man returning to his homeland after 20 years, I felt the absence of any personal dislocation very telling. But perhaps he had bigger issues with which to contend, not least the fact that his brother is still as self-absorbed as he ever was and, as we later find out in a rather dramatic “twist” near the end, quite an appalling sort of character, indeed.

And while the narrative zips along at a rather frenetic pace and effortlessly moves backwards and forwards in time, I sometimes felt as if Bock under-delivered what some of his set pieces had promised. Perhaps it was intentional, but I’m still mulling over a scene very early in the book in which Titus is accused of an abhorrent act that is never properly resolved. What was the point? Was it to foreshadow events, to suggest Titus was his father’s son?

And the ending, which involves a murder, seemed slightly dramatic in what, up until that point, had been a nicely underplayed narrative.

Domestic tale

But what I really liked about Going Home Again was this: it is a wholly domestic tale — about men and women, about marriage, about family, about the fallout of divorce — and it is told from an entirely male perspective. I cannot recall having read a book like this before, and for that reason, it felt new and interesting to me.

I’m not sure Going Home Again is likely to win the Giller Prize, but it’s an enjoyable story that will resonate with those who know that life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Maryam Sachs, Publisher, Quartet Books, Setting

‘The Passenger’ by Maryam Sachs


Fiction – paperback; Quartet; 112 pages; 2013. Translated from the French by Gael Schmidt-Cleach. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

There are two kinds of people who catch taxis: those that want to travel in peace and quiet, and those that like to pass time by conversing with the driver. In Maryam Sachs’ The Passenger, an unnamed woman falls into the latter camp. When she climbs into a taxi outside Charles de Gaulle airport to make the short trip home, she goes on a physical and figurative journey like no other — and all because she begins speaking to the driver.

A taxi ride

The story is narrated by an East German émigré, who is married with two adult children and lives in a Parisian apartment. She is returning from a holiday in Greece and tonight it is her son’s 21st birthday party.

The taxi ride shouldn’t take longer than an hour but it invariably gets caught up in traffic and slows to a crawl. As she watches the all-too familiar scenery passing by and smells the Parisian pollution coming in through the open window, her mind drifts to the past, from her birth in West Germany to her father’s death when she was just a child, from her upbringing in her mother’s native East Germany to a thwarted love affair at university which resulted in an abortion — and all this by page 16.

When she begins talking to the driver, she discovers he is Romanian and immediately the two begin to bond over their shared experiences as foreigners in France.

He smiles for the first time and our eyes meet in the rear-view mirror. It’s like an invisible thread has just appeared between us.

Over the course of the journey, which lasts a little shy of 90 minutes, the pair share stories and experiences from their lives. It is an intimate and important trip, one in which the road “we have travelled is more than just the distance between the airport and my house. No one’s ever taken me so far”.

Intimate portrait of a woman

This beautiful and beguiling novella unfolds ever-so gently, drawing you in to the thoughts and memories of the narrator as she unearths her life, learning about herself and her driver at the same time.

While much of what she recalls is sad — there’s an aching sense of loss throughout the narrative, of having to give up things or forget thing to move onwards — it has a strange meditative quality that left me feeling relaxed and at ease, almost as if I had plunged into a bubble-bath for a long, hot soak.

In fact, her reflection towards the end of the trip, pretty much sums up how I felt about the book:

We’re both silent, both lost in thought. We’re not paying attention to the sounds of the city any more. I feel so comfortable, at peace. It’s been a long time since I’ve been aware of the silence like this. It’s a silence full of meaning, a silence that knows it’s accomplished its mission. It fills me completely, I can almost feel it. I have no desire to break it.

Wise and wonderful

The Passenger is not only perfectly paced, it is filled with gorgeous observations and home truths written by an author with a perceptive eye.

This eloquent tale about an unlikely friendship, about opening ourselves up to new experiences and not being afraid to share our stories with strangers, is both heart-warming and heart-breaking.

But its real strength lies in the way it so wisely and astutely reveals how we can never leave the places that shaped us, nor forget those who have played such important roles in our lives. Who knew a taxi journey could be so enlightening?