The Other Side of the World to the World Without Us

Place is conjured in recent Australian literary fiction by Mireille Juchau in The World Without Us (Bloomsbury) and by Stephanie Bishop in The Other Side of the World (Hachette). Australia, in particular, is a land of contrasts with searing heat and cold, and fire and flood. Both these novels establish the effect of place on families and their impact of family and community on each other in these settings. Both these novels paint the major female character as artists having affairs.

Other side of the worldThe Other Side of the World is an assured second novel by Stephanie Bishop, gripping and authentic until perhaps the final coincidence. But England is likened to a ‘land of fairytales … of Hans Christian Andersen and the brothers Grimm… A land of fairies and witches, hedgerows and secret gardens, goblins and magical woods’, so perhaps coincidence here becomes a master-stroke.

When Henry arrives from India (a place also coloured with very different sights and sounds) he is surprised to find that England looks the way it is portrayed in stories. However, he feels displaced, unlike his English wife Charlotte who can’t withstand their transplant to Australia.

Charlotte craves the damp earth, cuckoo calls, foxgloves and hollyhocks of her homeland but finds comfort in Ajax, Kellog’s cornflakes and the Penguin books that she also discovers in Western Australia. Soon she responds to trees: the ‘marbled skin … and the limbs, the branches, all twisted and wrung … [as] the residue of something ancient and explosive and long gone’. She also responds to Englishman, Nicholas, who seems to listen to her and understand her longing.

Stephanie Bishop writes with insight and clarity. Like Mireille Juchau, she references poetry (Henry lectures in it; Juchau’s Jim shares it with his primary school students) and memory and time. Charlotte muses, ‘Events are compressed, days forgotten. In the mind one jumps from one intensity to another, the hours in between elided and lost’.

World without usPainter Evangeline in Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us, tells her schoolteacher lover Jim, ‘Time isn’t real, only change is’. Her unconventional lifestyle and actions partly spring from her upbringing on a commune, the Hive, but she and her daughters have also been torn adrift by the death of the youngest, Pip. Pip lingered at home after the doctors exhausted treatments, playing truth or dare with her older siblings. Tess always chose ‘dare’, putting herself at risk and finally becoming mute.

Adults and children are lost in The World Without Us. There are unanswered mysteries about fathers and fatherhood and also about the bees whose humming acts as a countermelody to the flitting missteps of the characters. Juchau’s imagery is earthy and often opaque. Writing from multiple viewpoints may cloud the impact of her truths.

Seek out our thriving Australian literary fiction by female authors. It will take you to other worlds.

Blistering Australian Literary Fiction

Some Australian female authors are writing blistering literary fiction. Two recent standouts are The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (A&U) and Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett (Picador).

Natural Way of ThingsI was fortunate to hear Charlotte Wood in conversation with Ailsa Piper just after I finished reading The Natural Way of Things. This is a searing story about a small group of women who have been incarcerated in the Australian desert. All these women have suffered sexual assault.

Charlotte Wood explained that she had to air the outrage from situations where women have experienced this abuse and spoken out. In many cases they have been left to languish while the male perpetrators have not been penalised or only received the equivalent of a rap over the knuckles. This reminds me of a well-known footballer who admitted to witnessing the group molestation of a young woman and did nothing about it and was later reinstated as a darling of the rugby league fraternity and media. It is beyond belief. Wood has spoken widely about cases she particularly draws on, such as the girls from Parramatta Girls Home who were sent to the Hay Institute in country NSW.

The Natural Way of Things is an extraordinary novel. I have never read anything like it and will remember it always. If you are avoiding it because of the dark content, you may be surprised that it may not be as black as expected. Beauty is threaded throughout the writing. Although harrowing, the book is ultimately empowering of women.

Rush OhKnowing that Shirley Barrett’s Rush Oh! is about whaling in Twofold Bay, out of Eden in NSW, didn’t endear me to reading this novel but a trusted bookseller was so enthusiastic about the book that I plunged in. The novel is absolutely fascinating. It is told from Mary’s point of view. She is the eldest daughter of head whaler, George Davidson (based on a real man) and seems to be falling for new rower and former preacher, the mysterious John Beck.

Much of the story is based on fact, including the pod of Killer whales, led by Tom, who round up humpbank whales to help the men hunt them. The Killers are regarded with respect and affection and are believed to be the reincarnated spirits of Aboriginal whale men.

There’s lots of tension, superb storytelling and an engaging voice.

Either of these novels would make a thought-provoking Christmas gift for discerning readers.