2015, 279 p
I put a hold on this book some time ago, having heard good things about it. I was startled to find that I was number 30 on the waiting list but when I actually picked the book up from the library some weeks later, I was prepared to be disappointed. “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, we are told- but I do. The gold embossed font suggested genre fiction (as Lisa from ANZLitLovers learned recently) and the pastel colours suggested romance. The sickly-sweet blurb “The only thing harder than losing home is trying to find it again” was not encouraging, either.
But this book is poorly served by its cover, because instead of fantasy or romance, this is a beautifully nuanced book about nostalgia, motherhood and the sense of ‘home’. It is written in the present tense, a stylistic choice that I usually bridle against (despite writing nearly all this blog in the present tense myself!) In this case, however, I barely noticed, as was the case in Black Rock, White City which I read recently too: perhaps I’m moving away from my prejudice against present-tense narratives?
Set between 1963 and 1966, Charlotte has been plunged into rapid motherhood, long before she feels ready. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Henry, an Anglo-Indian academic and she is suffocating under what we would now probably diagnose as post-natal depression. Ground down by the sheer mindlessness and fatigue of dealing with babies, she acquiesces in Henry’s dream of emigrating to Australia and ends up in stark, hot, sun-drenched Perth, where he gains a position at the university. She hates it and wants to return home but he resists her unhappiness, convinced that the opportunities that Australia offers their children and time will overcome what he assumes is temporary homesickness. She resents Henry and is drawn to a fellow artist, Nicholas, who understands better the nature of the sacrifice that this move to the other side of the world has cost her.
Although Henry rests in the assurance that he has done the right thing by bringing his family to Australia, as an Anglo-Indian he faces his own challenges in 1960s White Australia Perth. When he is called to India where his mother is dying, he leaves Charlotte alone with the children. Back in his childhood home and increasingly conscious of his parents’ choice to send him back to England for his education, he is brought up against his own concept of ‘home’.
A couple of years ago I was fortunate to work as research assistant for A. James Hammerton, who along with the noted oral historian Alistair Thomson, wrote Ten Pound Poms, a fascinating book about the experience of post-war English migrants who emigrated to Australia under the assisted migration scheme that ran between the 1940s and 1970s. He was working on a second book (not yet published as far as I know) about mobility between the UK and her former colonies especially after the assisted emigration schemes had drawn to a close, and the interviews that I read as part of my work for that project, along with those in the earlier book Ten Pound Poms very much echo the experiences of the characters in this book. It rings absolutely true.
Not so true, however, are some of the small infelicities which arise, I’m sure, as a result of the youth of the author. Refrigerator freezers in 1965 barely contained an ice-cream brick let alone a loaf of bread; playgroups didn’t emerge in Australia until the 1970s and the smacking of children- at least in many families- didn’t have quite the connotations it has now. I suspect that the author has spent much time examining the copies of the Womens Weekly available on TROVE but the references to it are awkward and jangly.
Charlotte has the eye of an artist and the author, Stephanie Bishop, has the voice of the poet. This comes through most strongly in the descriptions of setting and place that run throughout the book and which underpin Charlotte’s longing for England. At the same time, the book is minutely domestic with well-observed (if perhaps a little too lengthy) descriptions of parenthood with small children in the absence of a family or community network. Overall, it’s a very assured, mature and nuanced second novel by a clearly talented young writer.
I have posted this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge site.