Stephanie Bishop’s third novel, Man Out of Time, tells the story of a family – parents Leon and Frances, and their daughter, Stella – and the impact of Leon’s chronic mental illness.
The story spans decades, beginning with Stella’s ninth birthday when her father’s failure to buy the doll she coveted resulted in his unravelling.
The argument that followed was inevitable. It was not about the gift, but that was the only thing they could bring themselves to talk about, a cause to latch onto in order to expel something else.
Hospital stays and unexplained absences follow and as Stella becomes a rebellious teen, she wonders if, like her father, she will also struggle to exist.
Bishop returns to the themes she visited in The Other Side of the World – trust, expectations and responsibilities within a family. Despite the strong themes, the story lacks cohesiveness. The use of some unusual elements – photos and diagrams – were contrived and distracting, although there was an oddly satisfying two-page list of things Leon said ‘no’ to that illustrated the relentlessness and chaos of his thoughts –
No to the hum of the fridge.
No to polka dots on anything.
No to jazz.
No to sequins of leopard print.
No to the banal.
No to the perfection of copperplate.
No to cable-knitted jumpers.
No to electric bar heaters.
No to guinea pigs.
No to roses or sausages…
The parts of the story that explored Leon’s psychosis were interesting, however, there’s a thin line between creating a plot point and conflating certain behaviours with a particular mental illness – when you start to get into the territory of stereotypes and generalisations without clear explanation, it weakens the narrative.
I found much of the writing overly descriptive and awkward. For example –
On the morning of their marriage he had come to Frances with his shirtsleeves hanging and passes her the cufflinks; for the life of him he could not keep the cuff ready to push the metal bars through the buttonhole. Would you? he asked, lifting his wrists and showing her his disarray. He passed her the links and they sat down on the edge of the bed, the links on the blanket beside her. Show me, she said, and he proffered her his wrists, both together, the sides of his little fingers just touching.
Frances bent over him, fiddles, the tips of her fingers brushing his wrist skin as she worked one link in and fastened it, then the other.
I have a picture in my mind when I’m reading and details such as ‘little fingers just touching’ strays into the ‘telling me’ zone rather than ‘showing me’. So, rather than seeing the intimacy in this pre-wedding moment, I’m thinking through the logistics. The description goes on to say ‘He bent over to kiss her hair, then she looked up, clutching his hand in hers…’ So then I was thinking, ‘Hang on, how does that work? Weren’t they sitting next to each other on the bed?’ And suddenly, the reading experience has become laborious.
Some readers will find this book incredibly immersive whereas I found it meandering and vague, simply not my style.
2/5 Given the blurb (which suggests a mystery), I had hoped for something more compelling.
There were few, if any mentions of food in this book, so I’m going with a birthday party favourite (I certainly would have had jelly oranges at my ninth birthday).
Note: this book comes with trigger warnings (suicide, abuse, chronic mental illness).