Tuesday, August 09, 2016

journey to the bottom of the tbr pile: Stephanie Bishop/The Other Side of the World

Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World begins with a quote from the Russian writer, Svetlana Boym about nostalgia; Boym says that nostalgia is a ‘longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed’. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about home lately, about what home means, about how it can and must and will inevitably change. I’ve been asking myself if coming back is harder than leaving. If the change we see in our homes is actually a reflection of the change in ourselves. I’ve been wondering if the only way you can hope to answer these questions is by cutting yourself loose from home, from the expectations and the routine and the familiarity. I’ve reached few conclusions, but then maybe that’s the point. Reading Bishops’s book was a beautiful diversion from my own convoluted thinking. 

The Other Side of the World is an emotional rumination on home, on trying to find our place within the world and on the choices we make to find that place. English born Charlotte is a painter, she is married to Henry, an English-by-way-of-British-Colonial-India poet and academic. They live in rural England, in a small house with mould growing on the walls. They have a baby, Lucie. And the novel opens with Charlotte discovering a second baby, May, is on her way. 

Charlotte is struggling with motherhood, with being a wife, with the way these things seem to disconnect her from her art. Though I hesitate to make a diagnosis and Bishop never explicitly says, I think Charlotte is depressed. And in a moment of despair she agrees to move to the other side of the world that the title alludes to. Specifically, to Perth, Australia. Henry, who hates the chill of the English air as much as Charlotte is renewed by it, is joyful to escape to what he assumes is greener pastures. What follows is a gentle unravelling, a slow realisation of self, a chain of events and a series of decisions that threaten to tear the family apart. 

Set in the early sixties, The Other Side of the World moves languidly across the page, the language soft and poetic as it shifts around you. The descriptions of the English countryside evoke feelings of greyness, of a biting cold: 
‘She could never be lost here, but she could disappear, she thinks, as she passes the slow cows chewing frozen ground, steam rising from their flanks. She passes the pond, covered now with silvery ice, the frosted edges of brambles. Above her the sky is mottle brown and grey and the air smells of dung and grass. The leaves on the hawthorns are gone, those on the horse chestnuts are still browning and falling.’
In sharp contrast, those of the Australian bush are brilliant in colour and warmth, although Bishop manages to cleverly draw comparison between the two:
‘Charlotte looks out over the glassy violet water stretching on for miles, and in the back of her mind sees the silvery expanse of the damp fields she left behind. The river begins to glow as darkness falls on the land around it. The rushes and she-oaks that cluster along the water’s edge turn black as the sky shifts from orange then mauve. Beneath it, the river lies smooth as pearl and shines the colour of saffron. Golds and pinks marble its silky length.’
The Australian landscape Bishop paints is familiar to me only because it is the landscape so commonly associated with Australia in a broader cultural context. It is not my Australia. It is a dry, dusty and hot place. A place where one imagines the sky feels high and wide and impossibly blue. A place where the sun forces you to squint so often your brow is permanently furrowed.

Reading Bishop's rendering reminded me of Robyn Davidson's Tracks and the connection I forged to that red and dusty Australia, despite never having lived in, or even visited, Alice Springs. How can you have such a strong connection with somewhere you've never directly experienced?

I felt the same about the landscape Bishop wrote, a strong sense of connection and appreciation, and yet I also sympathised with the England Charlotte missed with a heartbreak I feel like I might understand. Maybe that's because my Australia is cooler and greener with more clouds and more rain; my Australia could almost be mistaken for England.  

Alongside the landscape, Bishop has constructed complex and engaging characters, and though I struggled to like Charlotte, I found myself keenly turning the pages, wanting to know what she would do. The narrative moves smoothly between the couple, and while it does feel like The Other Side of the World is Charlotte’s story, Henry’s desire to carve out a space for himself feels more visceral to me than Charlotte’s longing for home. Maybe that’s because I’m home now, perhaps if I’d read this story in London last year when it first found its way into my life, I’d have felt differently. 

While Henry's inability to really see his wife, to understand her, to meet her somewhere in the middle—while a vital tension in the story—made him frustrating, I did have some sympathy for him. And the scenes where Harry returns to India to be present for his mother’s death were some of the most interesting. 

Bishop holds a doctorate in poetry, so her ability to corral language so poetically is unsurprising. This book is beautifully written, the story engaging, the character’s complex enough to lift off the page, its underlying themes delicately mapped out. That said, it was the ending to this book that lingered, the ambiguity of it. It stayed long after the final page was turned and I still find myself wondering what happened. 

I wondered if it would be remiss of me to not mention the middlebrow discussion that hovered around this book last year, alongside Antonia Hayes’ Relativity and Susan Johnson’s The Landing. In an essay/review for the Sydney Review of Books, Beth Driscoll discussed ‘middlebrow’ fiction and its apparent association with women writers and readers. 

The word middlebrow, and its sibling highbrow, are words that I don't like. I don't like the aspersions created by their use, the way they are used to label books with no thought for what a book means outside of the intellectual sphere. I don't like the way they reduce books and writers, placing them into boxes and deciding what or who a writer, and their work, is. Positing a work as middlebrow—or as highbrow—seems lazy to me, as if deliberately missing the point of telling stories.

But mostly, I don't like the gendered use of middlebrow. And it is this specifically that that Bishop, Hayes and Johnson rejected in their smart and measured response to Driscoll, also for the Sydney Review of Books.

In light of the above, I'm not going to engage in a discussion of whether The Other Side of the World is anything more than a good story. A story that attempts to understand something of our interactions with each other, something of what home means, something of what motherhood and identity and self means in the broader context of our lives. 

If you want to label that as a type of brow, go right ahead. I’m less concerned with where this book fits on some imagined literary ladder and more with how it made me feel. 

What I felt was captivated by the beautiful language, what I felt was thoughtful about the idea of home and the choices we make to find home, what I felt was a delicious appreciation for the uncertainty of its ending. What more could I ask for?

Read more about the journey to the bottom of my tbr pile

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

journey to the bottom of the tbr pile: Cheryl Strayed/Tiny Beautiful Things

Reading Cheryl Strayed feels like talking to a high school friend's wise and cool mum. I don't mean that I feel as if I've been transported back to high school, but that it feels like that kind of relationship. Where someone with mountains of life experience, who shimmers with compassion and empathy, whose words feel wrapped in understanding and patience is chatting to you over the kitchen counter, a glass of wine in hand and a conspiratorial wink at just the right moment. It feels reassuring. 

I often wonder about that desire for reassurance, for comfort. In a way, we’re conditioned to battle on, to persevere, to ignore the obstacles as we leap over them, always moving towards some inscrutable life goal whose achievement will absolve all feelings of failure and sadness and anger and regret.

The reality, of course, is far different. 

Sometimes, as the wind howls around you, as the noise of world becomes too much, as you falter, as you fall, that reassurance is the only thing that keeps you breathing.

Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of columns written by Cheryl under the pseudonym Sugar for The Rumpus website, is subtitled 'Advice on love and life from someone who's been there' which feels incredibly apt. Because having read these columns, having read Cheryl's memoir, Wild, it's fairly clear that she has been there. 

As someone who is always emotionally invested in any book I read, Tiny Beautiful Things feels like a warm hug - which is how I described the book in a Twitter conversation once. 

The pages of this book are very nearly vibrating with emotion. 

Cheryl's responses to questions about grief and fear and love and envy are all-encompassing; encouraging and understanding and forgiving and nurturing. But also unafraid to point to ugliness and fear and self-pity and ask why?

I found myself underlining so many sections of this book; sentences and paragraphs that resonated, that stuck, that helped me keep breathing. 

I considered just listing them all, one after another and calling that my review. And in some small way, I am doing that. Only, I've slashed the list from multiples of multiples to a few that I found myself coming back to again and again, reading and re-reading until the words almost lost their meaning. Almost, but not quite.

The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of love.

Practice saying the word ‘love’ to the people you love so when it matters the most to say it, you will.

How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured. How many of them didn’t collapse in a heap of ‘I could have been better than this’ and instead went right ahead and became better than anyone would have predicted or allowed them to be. The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And ‘if your nerve deny you-,’ as Emily Dickinson wrote, ‘go above your nerve.’

The most terrible and beautiful and interesting things happen in a life…Whatever happens to you belongs to you.

Fear of being alone is not a good reason to stay.

Go, even though there is nowhere to go.
Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay.
Go, because you want to.
Because wanting to leave is enough.

In the last letter of Tiny Beautiful Things, the question is what Cheryl would tell her twenty-something self if she could talk to her. What follows is both heartbreaking and striking in its resounding simplicity. It is probably my favourite of the columns in this book, and so it makes sense to finish with it. To finish with the words I highlighted and read and re-read until they almost didn’t make sense, almost.

Be brave enough to break your own heart.

There are some things you can’t understand yet. Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding.

You will come to know things that can only be known with the wisdom of age and the grace of years. Most of those things will have to do with forgiveness.

You cannot convince people to love you.

Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realise there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.

The useless days will add up to something…These things are your becoming.

I've found a place for Tiny Beautiful Things on my bookshelf, one where I can easily reach it. Because this book is one that I'm sure I'll return to again and again, searching for a warm hug, looking for some reassuring words that will help me keep breathing.