The Other Side of the World made me cry into my pillow while on a lovely summer holiday in Cornwall. While the sleepy fishing village I was in couldn’t have been further from the humming hot air of Australia, Stephanie Bishop’s beautiful prose took me straight to the heart of Perth, where “the sky is high and liquid above the trees” and the “glassy violet water [stretches] on for miles.”
This is, primarily, a novel about home. Our sense of home, of belonging, the idea of diaplacement, the notion of leaving – all these themes are explored in Bishop’s shimmering portrayal of a family who move from Cambridge to Perth in the 1960s. Charlotte is the story’s protagonist, a mother of two and wife to Henry. Bishop evokes a Mrs Dalloway -esque feel as we watch Charlotte suffocate within the family she has created – she feels “her whole body swollen with sweat” when they first arrive in Australia, in search of a better life and at her husband’s wish.
Henry himself hails originally from India and one of the strongest parts of the book is his return trip to Delhi to visit his dying mother. Bishop captures the city perfectly, bringing the reader’s senses to life: “Along the roadside is everything his mother wanted him to forget: the men sleeping on benches and on the ground and on footpaths, the man defecating by the bridge-not squatting but just standing with knees a little bent, the shit falling out; the stone and cloth shacks by the highway and the thin mangy dogs; a truck piled high with corpses, the pale soles of their dark feet sticking out through wooden railings.”
Bishop has clear talent for description- she conjures up vivid images of the children, Lucie and May; Lucy has “long, fuzzy hair, sweet like wax and biscuits and fresh hay” and both are “so tiny” but “so large in Charlotte’s mind, simply because they take up the whole of it.” While this book is mainly character driven, Bishop keeps the plot moving and the suspense building through the addition of Nicholas, a man with whom Charlotte has a semi affair, and as the writing continued to dazzle I was never quite sure which way the story was going to go.
We watch as the marriage of Charlotte and Henry begins slowly to unravel, like a shoelace gradually loosening, until finally they come adrift from each other – Charlotte unable to bear being away from England, her homeland, any longer. The ending of the book is ambiguous yet highly emotive – we aren’t sure whether or not Charlotte has abandoned her children for good. Bishop toys with the idea of motherhood and where Charlotte’s moral responsibilities lie, leaving it ultimately up to the reader to case their judgement – if there is one to be cast. This is overall an unputdownable read by an very exciting Australian writer.