September 2015

Noted

‘The Other Side of the World’ by Stephanie Bishop

By Helen Elliott
Hachette; $29.99

Charlotte, the central character in Stephanie Bishop’s second novel, is young, beautiful and has a gift for painting. She also has two tiny girls, no gift for domesticity and a husband who is at a loss to understand her. It is the early 1960s, before second-wave feminism, before medication for depression. Depression was not a recognised fact. You just coped. Or didn’t.

The Other Side of the World covers three critical years in the life of Charlotte and her husband, Henry. The prologue, ‘1966’, takes us momentarily to the end of the story: Charlotte is in Cambridge on a snowy winter’s day, deciding her future. Self or family?

The story begins in October 1963. Henry, Anglo-Indian, kind, bookish, a lost boy in many ways, is an academic. He and Charlotte have a seven-month-old baby, Lucie. Charlotte, attending to Lucie and the house, wonders if she will ever paint again. They live in a damp cottage deep in the countryside and Charlotte’s release is walking through a gloomy landscape that reflects her malaise. Henry hates the climate and applies for a job in Australia. Charlotte is aghast at having to pull up her deep English roots, but too defeated to argue. She is also, most devastatingly, pregnant again.

In Perth it isn’t wet, they are not cold, but the sun and the heat are relentless. The garden Henry assiduously cultivates shrivels. When Henry has to return to India, Charlotte, predictably, falls in love with a neighbour. If you are uncertain who you are, it doesn’t matter where you are; the problems remain. And love? Where does it go?

A lecturer in creative writing at the University of New South Wales, Bishop has a doctorate in poetry, and this informs her thoughtful, intense prose. Her protagonist is impossible to like, but Bishop writes with such confidence that Charlotte’s choices are always interesting.

Bishop also writes with clarity about the competing demands in life. She questions ideas, and ideals, of motherhood that historically made it almost impossible for a woman to be creative without the world collapsing about her, or on her. Those postwar years can look glamorous and innocent, but glamour and innocence were dependent upon monstrous inequalities. Elizabeth Harrower, who was there, has written about similar distress. Perhaps her work influenced Bishop, although Bishop has none of the particular Harrower steel forged by malice and distress. Bishop has written a confronting novel, addressing issues from those seemingly faraway times that can still resonate today.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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