I’m torn as to how to review this book. What I’m not torn on is my general dislike for it, despite it being lauded as the current ‘must read’.
The book is about Charlotte and Henry. They’re married with one child, with Charlotte just finding out she’s pregnant with number two at the beginning of the novel. I think it’s pretty obvious right from the start that Charlotte is suffering from postpartum depression, but as the book is set in the 60s, no one is going to do anything about it.
Henry blames the weather and England for all their unhappiness. He decides they need a fresh start, and wants them to immigrate to Australia. Henry is keen to emulate his childhood in India, and thinks Australia’s tropical setting will elicit that sense of belonging he’s struggling with in England. He also points out that their daughter’s spate of ill health is only being exacerbated by that country’s cold.
Charlotte is totally against the idea but during a weak moment, agrees to go. Under sufferance.
This is probably when I started to hate Charlotte and the book. Her displeasure at everything from the voyage over onwards got completely on my nerves. Okay, I understand, this was the 60s and they arrive during summer, but still… Even hating on our wildlife?
And basically, when it comes to plots, that’s it. Henry goes to work, Charlotte stays at home and does what every mother around the world does, only not particularly well most of the time. (Again, I supposed she had undiagnosed depression, but still…) Yes, it’s boring in real life and boring in a book.
Somewhere in there she meets Nicholas, who is possibly the most boring man to grace the page. My eyes blurred over during nearly all their scenes together. (And can I just ask in what universe a woman can carry on with a man and her children *never* say anything about it to her husband? Like, not once, do we ever get the ‘Uncle Nick came over today’ scene.)
Henry is a much more interesting character. His back story is fantastic. I think Bishop would have been much wiser to have concentrated on him and his plot. Especially his lack of a real home or country of his own, and the racism he faces which goes along with that.
I have heard that this has an ‘unexpected ending’. I’m not sure what they’re talking about. The ending was as ho-hum as the rest of it. I actually thought it was going to get exciting and Henry was going to kill Charlotte. I’m not marking this as a spoiler, because I’m not really sure how it ended because my eyes blurred so much in the last chapter from the convoluted prose style that could have been it, for all I know!
I did give the books 3 stars because of the descriptive prose, which Bishop really does do incredibly well. In fact, her style reminded me a little of Evie Wyld’s. The three central countries all get their time in her descriptive sun. I can see every aspect so clearly in my mind. And, like Wyld’s, the descriptions of everyday routines make the most interesting reading. Yes, in this sense, the book is quite beautiful.
Wyld had some ingredients in her prize winning novel that Bishop doesn’t, however. Plot, tension, and characterisation were the big three missing in my mind. If Bishop can add these next time, she’ll really have a ‘must read’. But, for me, The Other Side of the World isn’t it.