Beautiful prose that subtly explores so many issues – post natal depression, migration, relationships, identity, racism, the meaning of home…
The Other Side of the World
In the tradition of Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work or Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine comes a complex, tender and gorgeously written novel of parenthood, love and marriage that is impossible to put down. Cambridge 1963. Charlotte struggles to reconnect with the woman she was before children, and to find the time and energy to paint. Her husband, Henry, cannot face the thought of another English winter. A brochure slipped through the letterbox gives him the answer: ‘Australia brings out the best in you’. Charlotte is too worn out to resist, and before she knows it is travelling to the other side of the world. But on their arrival in Perth, the southern sun shines a harsh light on both Henry and Charlotte and slowly reveals that their new life is not the answer either was hoping for. Charlotte is left wondering if there is anywhere she belongs, and how far she’ll go to find her way home…
Gently written with visually explicit landscapes and relationships put under the microscope this book is a delight to read. I particularly enjoyed reading about the era the migration to Perth Western Australia took place in and the experiences of the migrants Charlotte and Harry and their young family; I was child when we migrated from England to Perth in 1966 and my early memories are of similar experiences – not for me as a child – I think children just except whatever is thrown at them and the notion of migration and living in another country really didn’t impact me directly but it did my mother.
I think the adults were not particularly well prepared for the physical conditions, the cultural changes and the isolation. Like Harry my father had a job to go to, he had a purpose in his day. Accommodation was provided with the job – but a timber framed house with wood stoves for cooking and water heating in the middle of an extremely hot Australian summer do not make life easy for the homemaker, the wife left at home with no transport, no support network and basic cramped living conditions and unbearable heat. We were a family of six (at the time, which became seven) living in a two bedroom house. My parents had no experience of such heat and the sunburn, heat rash, and dehydration that came with it. Mosquitoes and flies… and other little pests can make life unbearable. I think it was a particularly difficult time for my mother. However, we stayed, maybe there were no other real options?
Was Charlotte brave? I think so. She had insight and was able to identify the problems in her life but not the causes. She made a difficult decision, actually several very difficult decisions – but still seemed lost and at odds with her identity. To admit that motherhood as she experienced it, was not for her is a huge undertaking – to go against the popular culture and socially determined role expected of a woman in the 1960’s, of a married woman with children, must have been enormously difficult. I think it would probably still be as difficult today to buck societies expectations but maybe the opportunity for depression to be identified and treated would be better but the underlying struggle to rediscover ones identity when in a long term relationship, when responsible for children…that battle is still be waged. Some deal with it better than others.
A fantastic novel that gently looks at the intersections of migration, sexism, racism and women’s place in society. This book is guaranteed to make you think and is a delight to read.