Stephanie Bishop’s story of migration was originally published as, Dream England, a more layered and subtle title than, The Other Side of the World. Why was this changed? In fact, all through the novel, the sense of another hand at play suggests too much intrusion of things that don’t fit. Given the great list of those she thanks, it only adds to the feeling that she has been mislead by well meaning ‘others’ into writing a story that is not hers. She says she is influenced by her mother’s and grandmother’s experiences, and perhaps because of this, she is not writing the story only she can tell.
Maybe this is why the character of Charlotte is so unappealing. From the outset, she is self absorbed, unloving and an unadventurous whinger. Yes, she may have post-natal depression, but Henry is the one with my sympathy. You wonder how a woman/girl like Charlotte would have had the courage to marry a mixed race person in 1960s Cambridge. That was another thing that didn’t gel. A number of plot devices were not thought through. For example, how did ten- pound-Poms suddenly have the money to fly around the world: Oh, I know, Charlotte can sell a painting. Really? What a writer writes does not have to be true. It is a made-up story after all. But the reader has to feel as though it is true.
The migrant experience is central to the novel, but this theme was not actually explored. Charlotte may wish to return to England, but it is not Perth that is causing her melancholia. She is unhappy within herself whether in Australia or England. Perth as setting was not convincing either. It didn’t feel as if Bishop or Charlotte had ever been there. Henry’s trip to India was more convincing and there were some very descriptive passages depicting his surroundings and the turmoil he felt for his mother who sent him away to school. These passages revealed the author’s talent.
Stephanie Bishop is a lyrical, and at times beautiful, writer. She explores big ideas and is capable of moving and evocative prose. Creative writing schools focus on the eight-point story arc. I think Stephanie Bishops should ignore this prescriptive approach and write her narrative from the heart.