Poetic immersion in streams of time
The Other Side of the World By Stephanie Bishop Hachette, 283pp, $29.99 Stephanie Bishop’s second novel measures the triangular geometry of her protagonists’ history. With its sharp edges, migrations and cuts, it is a dangerous history to live with. Beneath this acute analysis, the novel thrums with an elegiac hum and is soft with the shifting light and worn textures of memories, ‘‘broken, moving, far away’’.
The Other Side of the World maps the interstices, where the blade finds this softness, where injury feels always imminent, but where it may be possible to cut through to the bones of a feasible future.
Indian-born Henry lives with Charlotte in England, where low grey skies and icily treacherous footpaths spur him to apply for an academic position in Australia. For Henry’s parents, England is imagined as ‘‘home’’. The place of his education, it is ‘‘a land of fairytales: of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm’’. Now, it is a place of winter, illness and the shadow side of parenthood, from which the bright sun of his childhood beckons.
England for Charlotte is the birthplace of her small children and the place where she walks in the rain, grass up to her knees, feeling as though she is ‘‘wading in the sea’’, the self dissolving, dwindled. After the birth of her first child, she buries the placenta in the earth she wants her own ashes scattered over, high above a town with its ancient buildings.
Crushed between these encounters with birth and death, motherhood is ‘‘the curious tilt’’ of a sleeping child’s eyebrows, ‘‘appleround cheeks’’ and dimpled chin. It is mildewy washing slung around a cramped, damp house, where Charlotte’s framed letter of invitation to the Royal College of Art hangs in the bedroom ‘‘like a riddle’’: the ‘‘code for a past life now irretrievable’’. It is the body sinking ‘‘not like falling asleep. It is heavier. Darker. Like being sucked into something.’’ Beyond the one-two pulse of a baby’s suckling and the ‘‘phlegm bark’’ of a child’s night cough, Charlotte imagines summer’s ‘‘teasels and cow-parsley’’, its red poppies sprouting amid bee-music.
Charlotte dreams of Henry’s mouth. It is a long time since they have kissed, and his dream tongue ‘‘laps and flicks at hers’’. Beyond them lies a nightmare’s cacophony of war sounds and gunfire. He pulls her close and promises escape: ‘‘There is a road.’’ Only they don’t know where the road goes.
In their waking life, the road leads to 1965 Perth, where everything is ‘‘wild and hot. Dry and wild. Hot and dry.’’ Amid the evocative poetics of Bishop’s style, she produces a sparkling line in social comedy. At a dinner party, Charlotte, by now ‘‘unused to the company of grown-ups’’, listens to a woman discourse on the subject of her planned cruise: ‘‘some
June 27-28, 2015 Women’s Weekly thing … a promotion … the one with the cover picture of the poodle in the yellow life jacket’’. More disturbing than that image is her encounter with another guest at the dinner party, Nicholas, the kind of man capable of giving another person his attention.
While Henry grapples with the demands of work and digs at rocky soil to plant a garden, he imagines the family’s migration in terms of the poetry he teaches, conjuring Hawthorne’s image of children striking ‘‘their roots in unaccustomed earth’’. He wants a more vivid existence ‘‘the way a poem can make life feel’’. While he is pulled towards his history and the resolute future he demands of this unyielding new landscape, Charlotte is collected by the children’s lives into a stream of time not quite her own: ‘‘There is only one stream of time and somehow it has to be divided into her time and children’s time.’’ She becomes ‘‘a woman dispersed among her children’’.
Nicholas retrieves Charlotte from these rapids. While Henry pushes seeds into sand to force a poetic life to flower, Nicholas offers attentiveness. What he evokes in Charlotte is the lost self she mourns and the possibilities of art and eroticism. Charlotte sees ‘‘that she can tell him anything, anything at all and he will understand … it is as if they knew everything, as if everything that has ever mattered is immediately understood’’.
While a more conventional part of her recoils in fear, another understands that the love burgeoning between them is one that releases her back to herself. It is a freeing alignment of the unmet in each of them, a dignified correspondence that brings the restoration of ‘‘a feeling of nascence, of potential, of openness to the world’’.
Through attentiveness, Charlotte glimpses escape from the ‘‘various carapaces’’ of an untended marriage. Bishop uses a motif of blades and scissors throughout the novel, and now the sharpest cuts may be the cleanest, though they may ultimately be reparative.
Bishop’s PhD in poetry is evident in this novel. Magnificent imagery and an attunement to the music of the novel’s landscapes overlay its exploration of the impact of migration, place and displacement. Sometimes the collision of past and present selves manifests in a little gear-crunching of tenses (‘‘She steps up into the carriage … She knew where she was going … She turns her face to the window’’).
More often, the precision and flair of the writing is breathtaking. Bishop brings Charlotte towards an open future, one foreshadowed by the novel’s proleptic preface. With incisive revelation of her protagonist’s implosion and recovery, and the currents of love that variously buoy, carry and overwhelm her, Bishop portrays Charlotte’s lessons in cutting away space amid ‘‘the closeness, the constant pressing-in, the airlessness’’ where the blade of love closes against the conditions that might blunt it.
Stephanie Bishop’s novel thrums with an elegiac hum