Homesickness is a peculiar thing. Unpredictable and urgent or gently tugging and constant. I have never really experienced homesickness (even as a 16-year-old exchange student in Germany) – not as an overwhelming sensation, anyway. But my brother would, even on our month-long family summers at McCrae – he just wanted his own bed and his usual routines. I was thinking a lot about people’s different experiences as I was reading Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World.
It’s the story of Charlotte and Henry. Married with two small children, they’re living in Cambridge in the early sixties. In the grips of a grey English winter, a brochure slipped through the mailbox offers an alternative – migrate to Australia. (as part of what was known as the ‘Ten Pound Poms’ program).
The damp make his knees ache and creak. It is no good. He is a man for a dry land. Australia is a dry land. In his mind he sees a kind of paradise: sunlight, blue sky, pineapple and steak, golf and tennis.
Charlotte reluctantly agrees but life in Australia is not all that it promised and she becomes bitterly homesick. Henry, an Anglo-Indian, is slowly ostracized at the university where he teaches and gradually feels adrift for quite different reasons.
Bishop does an impressive job of putting words to the various dimensions of homesickness, highlighting the intensity and loneliness of the experience –
It happens like a chemical reaction: the sight of the new country immediately provoking a memory of the old. As though the two of them, he and Charlotte, can only see this new place through a veil of remembered ones – its differences noted, its similarities observed…
She knows now that leaving a place you love isn’t the worst thing; it is arriving in the second place and having to live as if the first place has disappeared. This is the tragedy – given enough time you come to doubt the place you knew before.
The descriptions of landscape and climate, both in England and Australia, are beautifully done –
Charlotte glances up: the sun is a tiny white speck in the blue sky, but its power is monumental. Heat is everywhere, pressing down on her shoulders, throbbing beneath her skin, burning her face.
Less successful, I felt, was Bishop’s description of post-natal depression. Although Bishop captures the relentless grind of motherhood, she doesn’t take readers to the dark places.
The day is hard to describe. The silent happy children and the unexpected plunges into panic.
Whether Charlotte was experiencing PND or not was never clear to me – perhaps the lack of clarity was deliberate on Bishop’s part, given it was the sixties and PND was not well understood. However, other reviewers have implied that Charlotte’s struggle with PND was the cause for her infidelity, her dissatisfaction with life in Australia, and ultimately, the final betrayal of her family. Perhaps, although I think Bishop hints at problems and causes that run deeper, particularly her trust in Henry and in his judgement, and her struggle with her own identity.
2.5/5 A quiet book that fell a little short of fully capturing my attention.
Delicious, he says, spearing another chunk of meat. Bloody delicious. He tries out new words: bloody, mate, love. It is not him, though. he does not really know these words. They are sounds only.
Try this slow-cooked lemon-paprika beef on the barbecue.