THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD
Author: Stephanie Bishop
Hachette RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
A sense of melancholy pervades The Other Side of the World, a beautifully written novel by Stephanie Bishop. Themes of motherhood, depression, belonging and identity are explored with insight, resulting in a moving and memorable tale that will leave readers pondering.
The story begins in Cambridge, UK in 1963, with Charlotte and her husband living in a cold, damp cottage. For Charlotte, who is struggling with motherhood and depression, this is a place of comfort and the cold is invigorating; for Henry, who was born in India and longs for a warmer climate, it’s more like cold comfort. The wife he once knew is buried under the weight of motherhood and tiredness, and he wants nothing more than to see her smile again. Is a fresh start in Australia the answer? Henry thinks so and Charlotte eventually gives in, too worn out to fight. If he gets a job, they can go, she says. He gets a job.
Travelling to the other side of the world is not all it seems, they soon realise. Not only does it take time to adjust to the different climate, the different light, but they’ve brought their emotional baggage with them. And, if anything, they have more, due to the sense of loss they feel, albeit in different ways. Charlotte feels the loss of familiarity, as well as her identity; Henry still feels the loss of his wife – she’s there, but not there. They both come to question where they belong – where is home? And what if home for them is two different places? Things come to a head when Charlotte makes a life-changing decision that is both sad and shocking. How it turns out is where the pondering comes in.
Bishop’s writing is measured and evocative. She is gifted with the ability to transport a reader into her setting, through atmospheric description. I felt the fog, the creeping cold of the UK countryside, just as I felt the searing heat of the Perth summer. Likewise, Charlotte’s lethargy, melancholy and confusion was brought to life, just as Henry’s sadness, frustration and hope was. Bishop is equally adept at evoking emotional response in her reader. Having moved more than 4000km from Sydney to Perth more than a decade ago now, I can relate to the mixture of pain, sadness, disconnect that comes from having two homes – my heart belongs to both, even though physically, I belong in Perth now. Other readers will respond to other cues in the novel – Charlotte’s depression, the tiredness of motherhood, the pressure of marriage, and so on.
The Other Side of the World is not a happy story. Nor is it a bleak story, despite its open ending. Instead, it explores feelings and situations with honesty, showing that sometimes, life doesn’t flow smoothly, feelings can’t be escaped and there are not always easy answers. It reminds me of the saying that goes something like “Wherever you go, there you are”. You can change countries, states or cities, but it’s only a temporary fix – whatever lies underneath in your mind will end up coming to the fore eventually. The other thing that the novel highlights is the lack of awareness about post-natal depression at the time – Charlotte’s experience of isolation would be something many older women can relate to.
I loved this book – the story, the writing and even the ending, open as it was, struck a chord for me. If you don’t like open endings, perhaps this is not for you, but if enjoy you books that make you think, do add this to your reading list.
Available from good bookstores and Hachette Australia. My copy was courtesy of Hachette.