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The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop is prefaced with a quote – “Nostalgia is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy……”. I think we can all understand this – that the childhood we might remember as being idyllic was probably not really so perfect – that first love affair is only wonderful in retrospect – if it had really been so wonderful it would not have ended. But, the cold light of reality does not completely erase the feeling of yearning for that time or place. For someone who has been moved from the place they feel most at home the feeling of nostalgia and the sense of loss is more profound, and that is certainly the case for both Charlotte and Henry – the protagonists in this novel.

Henry grew up in India, in Delhi. Sent to England, to school, at the age of 11 in 1945 there was later nothing to return to in India. He is a citizen of the British Empire, and chooses to stay in England and marry Charlotte. They are very much in love, they have dreams. Charlotte studied art, she is a painter. Henry an academic. It is the early 1960s - they have one child, Lucie, and soon another, May. They live in a damp little cottage. Henry goes to work, and Charlotte stays at home with the children.

Henry misses the warmth of the weather in India and applies to emigrate from England to Australia with his young family. When their application is accepted Henry is happy to think of a new start in a warm climate – but Charlotte has no desire to leave England – it is her home and she is deeply attached to the landscape and the place where she was born and grew up. But, unable to convince Henry she submits and they leave.

Australia is indeed a new life – a very different landscape, new people, all strangers. Henry enthusiastically starts a new job as a lecturer at the University. But, it is more difficult than he expected. He finds that he is considered “coloured” here. In England many East Indians emigrated from the colonies for education and opportunity – but here in Australia it is different.

Charlotte at home with the children – children who demand care and attention – struggles to get through the day. Charlotte loves her children but she is floundering – she cannot paint – she feels she has completely lost her own identity. Her one attempt at a portrait of her husband is not entirely successful.

As I read about this time in a young woman’s life – from the perspective of someone so much older – I recognized that for young parents it is often a time when many find themselves overwhelmed with the care of children. The months, or years, of sleepless nights, the childhood illnesses that sometimes feel unrelenting – the loss of any time for oneself and ones own needs and desires that must take second place to the needs of children. Most of us survive that time – we may look back and wonder how on earth we managed – but we did manage. We counsel our own children to take care, to understand that this time will pass – to hang in there. To get help if they need it physically or emotionally. Henry and Charlotte did not have parents there to help in Australia – nor did they have friends they felt they could confide in.

Charlotte knows that she has a “burning love” for her children; she is “made whole” by this love. She is torn by her “great need for them, the great love. Then the swift feeling of being overcome, smothered”. She very clearly sees her choices, and knows no matter what her choice is, “ she will not be forgiven”.

Stephanie Bishop has written an exceptional novel about love – between husband and wife, parent and child. She tells a story based in large part on the life of her grandparents who did in fact emigrate from England to Australia at this time.  I will attach an article Stephanie Bishop wrote for the Guardian newspaper to the Parry Sound Books website with this review. The Other Side of the World is a terrific novel – one I bet you’ll be up late at night to finish. 

FYI The Other Side of the World has won the following awards

 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2015 & Literary Fiction Book of the Year ABIA's 2016, and Shortlisted for  The Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 2016, Indie Book Awards 2016 & NSW Premier's Literary Awards 2016 and Longlisted for The Stella Prize 2016

The Following is an article published in the Guardian 17 Sept 2016

My grandmother’s £10 ‘exile’ returned to haunt me

Stephanie Bishop’s grandmother reluctantly emigrated to Australia in the 60s and never let the family forget it. Now Stephanie knows exactly how she felt.

Among my papers is a yellowing pamphlet calling on Britons to migrate to Australia. It is dated from the early 1960s and depicts a version of the happy life: in one photograph a nuclear family is playing on a beach, in another they are strolling down a suburban footpath. There is a photo of a wife doing the shopping and one of a well-dressed man going off to work, smiling and swinging his briefcase.

The captions promise everlasting sunshine and a “British way of life” in a country populated by “British stock” – for only £10 (about £150 today) with children travelling free. It was a seductive vision of the migrant’s life and my grandfather fell for it. He was one of many: the Assisted Passage Scheme was one of the 20th century’s largest planned migrations. Those who participated are commonly known as ten pound poms.

My maternal grandparents migrated to Sydney in 1965, but it was not an easy decision, as far as the story of their marriage goes. It was something my grandfather wanted very much, and which my grandmother wanted not at all. This rift was complicated by their different backgrounds: my grandfather was part of the Anglo-Indian diaspora. Born in Calcutta in 1926, he was sent to England as a boy in the lead up to Indian independence but he never felt wholly at home here and the claim that Australia would be just like Britain, only sunnier, appealed.

My grandmother, on the other hand, had never lived anywhere other than England and identified intensely with the landscape and its people. When they left, they had four young children, and my grandmother discovered she was pregnant with a fifth on the voyage. She did not want to move, and has resented this, to varying degrees, ever since.

Growing up in Australia, what I heard again and again was my grandmother complaining about this ill-fated event. Her longing for England never lessened.

I can’t remember a time when I was in her company and she did not say something about the great pleasures and beauty of England and compare Australia unfavourably. Yet in our family it was part of our routine entertainment to quietly mock my grandmother’s grief. All the while my grandfather silently bore her criticism, aware that his wife thought he had done her some great wrong. As a child, and young woman, I accepted the wider family’s take: my grandmother was simply a whingeing pom.

In my mid-20s I moved to the UK to undertake a PhD. Towards the end of my studies, my grandparents came to visit: they stayed nearby and I invited them for dinner.

What surprised me most about that visit was the joy my grandmother seemed to feel simply by seeing me going about my days in England. It was as if by my moving here I had fulfilled something in my life that she couldn’t achieve in her own. If she couldn’t return, then at least I could. She spoke, that night, of England being my spiritual homeland because it was, so to speak, in the family. It was the first time we had really met alone, as two adults, and during the meal my grandmother confessed things that I didn’t know of.

She wondered why she had agreed to move to Australia when she hadn’t wanted to. If it hadn’t been for the children, she said, she might have left her husband. Until this point I’d always viewed her as the archetypal stay-at-home mother: a strong feminist, but a feminism in which maternal experience stood at the apex of a woman’s life. With this new knowledge – with the recognition of her own doubt and uncertainty – she seemed both more fierce and more injured.

I started to understand the grief she had lived with for more than 40 years. This was partly because I, too, had come to feel attached to this place and could comprehend something of what she had lost. I then saw her in a completely different way: riven by opposing impulses, unsure of her own actions.

I came to realise that my tendency to dismiss and overlook what, for my grandmother, amounted to an experience of exile, was part of a broader and persistent attitude towards this migrant group. The trials specific to British women migrants at that time were easily deemed insignificant. We generally resist describing migrants as exiles because it’s assumed that the migrant is free to return. But after this conversation with my grandmother such a position seemed inaccurate, especially for this group of women, often with young children, and without independent means of their own that would allow them to choose otherwise.

Not long after this visit, I discovered I was pregnant. Out of the blue, my husband and I found ourselves having conversations that seemed to replicate those my grandparents must have had 50 years before: where was the best place to raise a child? What experiences did we want our children to have? What did home mean to us, now that we’d been away for so long?

While we were trying to make a decision about our own lives, I began to feel that my experiences and my grandmother’s were overlapping to an uncanny degree. It seemed as though my life were directly replicating that of my grandparents’. And it was against my grandmother’s life that, at the time, I often found myself trying to understand my own.

While my mother thought I should come “home” to have the baby, my grandmother thought I should stay put. Even childbirth was better in England, she said. So I sided with her and we remained, our daughter born on a frosty night in December. Eventually, though, my husband and I returned to Australia with our child in tow. It was a decision that only further strengthened the strange overlap and subsequent bond between my grandmother and me.

 

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