Poetic im­mer­sion in streams of time

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Felic­ity Plun­kett

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

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