The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

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.

 

 

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14 responses

  1. Homesickness is an interesting concept indeed. I experienced it when I was sent away to boarding school in a big city, having lived the 12 years before that on a very remote and very large sheep farm. But it also taught me coping mechanisms, which is why I don’t suffer from it anymore, despite living in a different country.

    I was fascinated when I discussed the concept with a group of six French women who were learning English, as there isn’t an exact translation in French, they used the word ‘nostalgie’, which for me anyway doesn’t quite fit. 5 out of the 6 said they had never suffered from it, which I thought surprising, until they told me that they had never left their hometowns, that they still lived close to their mother’s, the one who had experienced it, had left Marseille to go to university in Montpelier, 90 minutes away but she came home every weekend.

    I guess because I come from NZ and there is strong culture of travel abroad for young people, we have the impression that most people have experienced the homesick feeling when living away from home, but as my experience suggests, its certainly not like that everywhere.

    It’s a pity the book didn’t quite live up to expectations, it’s an interesting premise.

    • So interesting that there is no word in French for homesickness! I think the interesting element of homesickness is that is for a place, rather than people. But then I wonder, is it the place or rather the ease of the familiar? When I was on exchange I do recall being exhausted by the constant ‘translating’ – and translating of every single thing. After a while, I started dreaming in German (not that I could understand it!) and I remember thinking “I can’t even sleep without working!”

      I think you’re right about expectation in Aus and NZ that people travel (and inevitably our travel takes us a long way away), and also about the coping mechanisms we learn along the way.

      There’s no question that Bishop wrote beautifully about homesickness and it did provide lots to think about – I actually couldn’t think of any other novels focused on homesickness – but the role of Charlotte as a mother didn’t sit right with me.

  2. Yes, that’s true, I was dissatisfied by this book. I’ve said enough about that in my review.
    But homesickness, oh yes. Because we moved such a lot when I was a child, I was always homesick for the last place we’d lived in, and the feeling didn’t go away until I bought my own home when I was in my twenties. And even now although I love to travel I get panicky beforehand and don’t want to go, and I get ridiculously homesick by about week 3, sometimes sooner. It feels so childish, but I can’t help it…

    • I don’t think it’s childish at all. I suspect that although our adult logic tells us to ‘get over it’, there’s something more intrinsic and elemental about feeling at ‘home’ – I think it relates to having unstructured time, not having to think about every element of the day, inherently knowing where things are and what to expect. I see those kind of responses as biologically driven, innate.

  3. I moved a lot as a kid and always missed the last town for a while but not very long, and have never settled properly as an adult, going back to live in places a couple of times and finding everyone I knew had left. I can’t imagine though what it would be like to migrate.

  4. I’ve never felt homesick, but I also feel ‘at home’ in places very quickly – it doesn’t take much for me to feel settled. I’ve a friend who suffers it really badly and she explained to me it is a literal sickness, she feels really unwell. This novel sounds like it could have been a really interesting exploration of that feeling and a lot more, but it was a missed opportunity.

  5. I bloody loved this book when I read it and I think it was the homesickness element that did it for me. I used to get horrendous bouts of homesickness when I first came to the UK … it was like being pummelled by melancholia. I’d see a picture of a gum tree and I would want to weep. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to miss a country — it’s sights and smells and seasonality — that is so far away and I think Bishop does it pitch perfectly in this novel.

    • I loved her descriptions of the heat and light (in UK and Aus). A good friend who lived in London for 10 years always said it was the long, grey winters that made her miss Aus the most. I love hot weather and reckon I’d struggle if I knew I was in a cold climate for good.

      • I don’t care about the cold. It’s not that much different to Melbourne, tbh. But what gets me is the dark: in winter night arrives at 3:30pm. This came as such a shock that first winter. Some 18 years later I’m used to it, but I still don’t like it. It makes me want to hibernate, not socialise and eat ALL THE CARBOHYDRATES! 🤭

      • I’m with you Kate. I love hot weather, so I was very happy living in Southern California for three years. But I could possibly cope with the cold if it were like Canberra’s – ie bright and sunny most of the time! I agree with you kimbofo, the short days would really get to me (along with the greyness.)

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