At our recent Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown event, six writers gave a speech in defence of the book they believed most deserves to win the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Readings Head Book Buyer Alison Huber spoke in praise of Stephanie Bishop’s novel The Other Side of the World.
How to describe this wonderful book? First, some basic matters of plot for those who are unfamiliar with Stephanie Bishop’s novel. The story follows Charlotte, her husband Henry and their children as they make the long sea voyage from England to Australia in the wave of 1960s British migration. Bishop tracks Charlotte’s sensations of uncertainty in the wake of this upheaval: uncertainty about her marriage, about motherhood, and most of all about her capacity to belong and make this new and alien land her home.
For me, the experience of reading The Other Side of the World almost defies adequate explanation. Its potency is in its portrayal of sensation, of feeling, of emotion, of those registers that exist beyond mere description.
How to describe, for example, the experience of really being in the weather, the feeling of living in oppressive heat, of sticky sweat, of damp skin? How to express the feeling of love: of letting it go, of feeling its loss? How to portray the desire for home?
Somehow, all these sensations become real in the novel, but they are conveyed through its restrained style rather than excessive explanation. This is a novel refreshingly spare on adjectives and similes and metaphors; Bishop instead narrates with poetic precision. It is also a novel informed by significant historical research, but it wears this knowledge lightly and the story is never weighed down by its erudition. It’s a rare feat of control.
At its heart, The Other Side of the World is about nostalgia and longing, and about what constitutes the idea of home. Bishop produces a profoundly moving account of homesickness, and the destabilising effects this emotional state can produce. How far can the longing for the past pull you away from the present? Bishop captures something many migrants experience: not just the feeling of being out of place, of not belonging, but also the way that calling a new country home forever changes the relationship to the old; and the unsettling moment when home as it was once understood begins to exist only in the mind.
It is sometimes said that one of the greatest compliments a reader can pay a book is that, once she has read the final word, she wishes to turn back to the first page and start it all over again. This unfamiliar desire overcame me as, through rare reading-induced tears, I turned the final page of The Other Side of the World.
But there’s a problem with this compliment and the readerly sensations that inspire it: the problem is that the second reading of any book can never replicate the first. It is, by definition, a re-reading; on any subsequent reading, the reader knows the plot, she knows where the writer is taking her; she may remember phrases, recall dialogue, see things coming. While the second reading is an opportunity for a re-immersion in the world of the book and offers many pleasures, they are not the same pleasures of the first encounter.
The desire suggested by that greatest of compliments, therefore, is not simply a desire to return to the beginning and read the book again, but a desire to read the book again for the first time. This is a desire that can never be met, a craving that can never be sated. It is itself a form of nostalgia; a longing for a moment once experienced but that is now lost to history.
The Other Side of the World somehow managed to produce in me an embodied sensation of its thematic concern. Like Charlotte, I can never truly go back. I can never go back to read as I read that first time, but how I long to. That longing, hanging in the air, makes this book all the more special.
So, to my esteemed fellow shortlist defenders: I see your heat and your light, I see your quiet, your racing arms, your little hands, your dynamite factory, and – as wonderful as they are – I raise you The Other Side of the World: one of my most treasured reading experiences of the last few years. For those of you yet to read it for the first time, I envy the experience that awaits you, for I will always be homesick for Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World.