The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

In brief: Life in England is unsettling for new mum Charlotte. The weather, the children…just everything. When husband Henry decides the family should move to Australia, which should be the start of something great. But it’s not right either.

The good: Intense, beautiful and unsettling.

The not-so-good: As a West Aussie, Perth felt kind of anonymous to me, like a blank canvas.

Why I chose it: It sounded great. Thanks to Hachette Australia for the eARC.

Year: 2015

Pages: 352 (eARC)

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Setting: England and Australia

My rating: 9.5 out of 10

The Other Side of the World attracted me for several reasons. One, the cover – to me it yells, ‘AUSTRALIA’ (the whole down under thing). Two, I love stories about fish out of water and three, the hype pre-release was intense in a ‘this is wonderful‘ kind of way. So I sat down on a Sunday night to read this and had it finished Monday night. Not only is it an intense story with beautiful prose, it’s a page turner. It’s not too often you see that combination but The Other Side of the World has it in spades.

Once you start reading the book, it feels like it is pulling you into its world until you are sitting in the story. It envelopes you and was always somewhere on my mind as I was reading it. This book has an all-consuming power that will make you part of it, yet it’s quite a simple story. We meet main character Charlotte as she’s walking through the woods to the little cottage she shares with her husband and child. She’s just found out she’s pregnant again and it’s not a happy feeling. Life is hard with a child, an all-consuming drudgery in a cold land. What options are there for Charlotte? Not much in 1960s England until a brochure through the letterbox suggests Australia might be a sunny alternative. Henry, who grew up in India and has fond memories of it, seizes on the opportunity to relocate. Charlotte gives in and plans are set in motion to move to Perth, Western Australia.

Unfortunately for Charlotte, arrival in Perth is not easy. It’s the middle of summer and everything is bright and too intense. (I am the firm – albeit biased – believer that Perth has the brightest, clearest light in the world and I adored how Stephanie Bishop captured that feeling of intense light as the family arrived in Fremantle). It’s hot, there are bugs everywhere and life is the same round of drudgery. Everything starts brilliantly for Henry until the effects of the White Australia policy start making some snide comments. Perth is not the utopia either of the couple thought, but their relationship begins to break down as they lead increasingly separate lives. Charlotte wants to go back to England, but Henry does not want to pay the fare, so she is reduced to desperate measures…

The Other Side of the World is incredibly atmospheric. I could feel the sense of claustrophobia and damp that permeated Charlotte’s life in England. Perth was much more anonymous – there’s hardly any reference that identifies it as Perth. The mentions of the university near the river and the river itself lack detail – perhaps because Charlotte didn’t want to search for it herself. While as a West Aussie, I was a little annoyed initially, I changed my mind for several reasons. One, because Perth wasn’t more than a big country town in the 1960s that didn’t really have many unique features. Two, because the anonymity and open spaces is what got to Charlotte – she’s even more lost here than at home. Henry’s time in India too felt damp, clingy and humid as he waits for his mother to die. All the settings are distinct in how they feel to the characters, which is then passed on to the reader.

As for the characters – both Charlotte and Henry have sides that are distinctly unlikeable. They’re not people who are warm and engaging but standoffish and reluctant to ‘get involved’. To use an Aussie turn of phrase, I wouldn’t invite them over for a barbeque! They are both responsible for the upheaval in their lives. I found it difficult to like Charlotte because she stubbornly refused to even attempt to adapt to life in Perth (hometown pride may get in the way here) but there were times I felt sorry for her. I didn’t always understand her actions, but I felt a grudging admiration for her ability to obtain what she thought she wanted. Did she achieve it? Well, that’s up to the reader to decide.

The prose of The Other Side of the World is absolutely beautiful. It’s lyrical and evocative in the images and feelings it raises. Where is home? What is home? As the characters struggle to answer these questions, you’ll be carried along as part of the story. I would not be surprised to see The Other Side of the World in a number of prize shortlists over the next year.

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