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.
The 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’.
Painter 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.