BOOKS: Stephanie Bishop’s Man Out of Time.

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One of Stephanie Bishop’s ma­jor pre­oc­cu­pa­tions in her pre­vi­ous novel,

2015’s award-win­ning The Other Side of the World, is par­ent­hood: the vul­ner­a­bil­ity it causes and the shifts it brings to iden­tity and one’s deep­est long­ings. One of the two pro­tag­o­nists, de­pressed Char­lotte, thinks of moth­er­hood: “It should be a joy. I should know how to make it a joy. To­day, though, the re­pul­sion over­whelms – this need to be alone, away from the chil­dren.” The Other Side of the World is a lin­ear nar­ra­tive but full of emo­tional shifts height­ened by the swings of Char­lotte’s men­tal health and her hus­band Henry’s nos­tal­gia for a sense of be­long­ing. It’s an­chored by Bishop’s ex­cep­tional record­ing of the de­tails of do­mes­tic life, and their sig­nif­i­cance. Her stun­ning writ­ing and the way she blends the con­crete and the ethe­real made this ear­lier novel com­plex yet ac­ces­si­ble.

Bishop’s am­bi­tious new novel, Man

Out of Time, also fo­cuses on men­tal health and par­ent­hood, but this time in­cludes its counterpoint, fil­ial­ness. It’s also a more frac­tured and chal­leng­ing work. Rather than a cou­ple, here Bishop ex­am­ines a tri­an­gle made up of fa­ther Leon, mother Frances and daugh­ter Stella. In an ex­quis­ite set piece that opens the novel, it’s 2001 and Leon goes miss­ing in a “city on the coast where no one knew him” with clear in­tent: “… he could file for pre­scrip­tion painkillers un­der a se­ries of dif­fer­ent names … There could be no er­ror this time, no fail­ing …” Is Leon suc­cess­ful in his plans? We aren’t told yet – an­other clever way Bishop grounds the story and pro­vides it with an un­der­pin­ning struc­ture.

A po­lice of­fi­cer soon ap­pears on the doorstep of Leon’s adult daugh­ter, Stella, who’s liv­ing in a for­eign coun­try and work­ing at a Green­peace call cen­tre. She can’t bring her­self to an­swer his questions there and then but agrees to write some­thing. This pre­cip­i­tates the story mov­ing back to the day of Stella’s ninth birth­day – the be­gin­ning of Leon’s de­bil­i­tat­ing men­tal col­lapse – in­ter­wo­ven with the present-day mys­tery of Leon’s dis­ap­pear­ance.

There are no other char­ac­ters of note and any­thing be­yond their in­ner worlds is im­ma­te­rial, so we know al­most noth­ing about their work or friends, or the city or coun­try where they live. As Leon’s ill­ness pro­gresses, the three form an in­tense fam­ily love tri­an­gle be­set with be­tray­als. Leon, in the hospi­tal: “… you miss your daugh­ter more than you thought pos­si­ble. You are sure, too, that you can feel her need­ing you. It is a mother’s in­stinct, passed over into a man’s body … You are sure that you can feel your daugh­ter’s lone­li­ness rip­ping in your blood.” The fa­ther-daugh­ter bond is “… the first and ir­re­place­able ro­mance of a daugh­ter’s life, and the cul­mi­nat­ing ro­mance of a man’s, one that over­laps too eas­ily with the love he should feel for the child’s mother.” Where ex­actly does ado­ra­tion be­come trans­gres­sion? Leon’s love for Stella is pas­sion­ate but ul­ti­mately use­less and, worse, en­dan­ger­ing.

Man Out of Time is writ­ten with a shift­ing point of view and some­times the in­te­ri­or­ity Bishop con­jures within the minds of the child Stella and of Leon, par­tic­u­larly, is on the verge of over­whelm­ing. His psy­chotic episodes are treated the same as the rest of the nar­ra­tive, ob­scur­ing the line be­tween re­al­ism and Leon’s other men­tal realm, and there are float­ing sec­tions in sec­ond per­son in­dica­tive of his dis­so­ci­ated state. Bishop never al­lows it to spin out of con­trol. Leon takes pho­tographs and some of these are in­cluded, as are sketches of his ex­pe­ri­ence as he con­cep­tu­alises it. Bishop’s unerring sense of ground­ing saves the story from be­ing en­tirely meta­phys­i­cal.

The char­ac­ter of Frances is also im­por­tant here. She lacks Leon and Stella’s pas­sion and ab­strac­tion and she’s the one left to cope with Stella’s re­bel­lion as a teenager and to watch for signs of Leon’s de­te­ri­o­ra­tion when he returns home be­tween hos­pi­tal­i­sa­tions. On Leon’s first dis­charge, Frances is given pam­phlets de­signed to ex­plain his con­di­tion. She throws them away. “… she would not re­duce her hus­band to a check­list, or de­limit his char­ac­ter to a set of symp­toms, or at­tempt to sep­a­rate him from the things he claimed to be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing …” Love, it seems, re­quires an ac­cep­tance that the con­cept of re­al­ity is a blurry one. Frances re­alises in time that this strat­egy does not serve any of them.

In the end, though, this is Stella’s story. As a young girl, she adored her fa­ther and imag­ined grow­ing up to marry him. Her mother’s prac­ti­cal love lacks the drama of her fa­ther’s, and Stella’s young life has been de­fined by his ill­ness and his ab­sences. Leon’s fa­ther, it’s sug­gested, com­mit­ted sui­cide, as did Leon’s brother. What, then, is Stella’s legacy? Now that he is miss­ing, how much is he her re­spon­si­bil­ity?

The world of Man Out of Time is bleak and un­remit­ting with the ex­cep­tion of a short up­lift­ing epi­logue, the only false note in the novel. For the rest, Bishop ef­fort­lessly cap­tures emo­tional pain as a vis­ceral thing, some­thing that is – again, the leaky de­mar­ca­tion be­tween the con­crete and ab­stract – as real as an un­di­ag­nosed ill­ness. In an es­pe­cially mov­ing anal­ogy, Bishop com­pares the dead with tweets, which re­side “… in the ether, which is where souls are also said to dwell …”. There are many other heartrend­ing mo­ments, as Stella tries to process the im­pact of her fa­ther’s life upon her own, but none are trite or sen­ti­men­tal.

Stella grows up to be­come a writer who finds tenses and the idea of causal­ity at the heart of both sto­ry­telling and liv­ing. Bishop writes: “… the novel is a thing that dal­lies in both truth and fal­sity … giv­ing way­ward ex­pe­ri­ence the causative struc­ture that one craves, pre­cisely be­cause this fea­ture is gen­er­ally absent in day to day life.” It’s a star­tling ad­mis­sion in a novel that delves into Stella’s child­hood in an ap­par­ent at­tempt to un­pick what has brought Leon to this cli­mac­tic point. In this, as in the rest of Man Out of Time, it re­veals Bishop to be an as­ton­ish­ing tal­ent who can tell a deeply mov­ing story as well as look be­neath it to deeper truths. LS

Ha­chette, 304pp, $29.99

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