The Other Side of the World
August 1, 2015 — 4:55

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: Australian poetry fiction writing literary awards literary fashions  Comments: 7

My review of Stephanie Bishop’s second novel, The Other Side of the World  was published in the Fairfax newspapers this weekend. Bishop was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists for her first novel The Singing.

This second one – and the other side of the world is Australia, viewed from the northern hemisphere, mainly England – tells the story of a young couple who emigrate to Fremantle in the 1960s.


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I won’t repeat the points I make in my review, except to say that The Other Side of the World is an accomplished, moving novel. Instead I’m adding a few thoughts about historical fiction and contemporary writing styles, which I didn’t have the space to mention in my 700 word review.

It’s commonplace to say that historical fiction has enjoyed a renaissance in the last couple of decades, and that this includes works set in the distant, as well as the more recent past – a category that includes Stephanie Bishop.

Bishop’s intimacy with her characters, and the thin membrane which separates their inner lives from the physical worlds around them, works admirably for the story that she has to tell. She says in her acknowledgements that the novel was inspired by the migration of her grandparents. Bishop can draw on universal themes of exile and displacement without having to confront  the thorny problems an author faces when dealing with historical events that are widely known, and people who are part  of general, that is more than family, history.

Bishop’s up-close-and-personal way of writing has become very familiar to me in recent years as a reviewer and a reader – so much so that deviations from it are unusual. An interesting example is Emily Bitto’s The Strays, which won the 2015 Stella prize. Many reviews have been written of The Strays, most of them highly favourable, and the novel, in my opinion, has much to recommend it. But it popped up in a facebook discussion recently where questions were raised about book’s glittering, imagistic surface compared with the depth and solidity of historical events that took place during the time that the novel covers, events such as the Great Depression, which are not so much engaged with as part of the author’s project, as occasionally referred to.

I’m not putting any of this forward as a way of criticising Bishop, but I do believe there are issues peculiar to historical fiction, matters which ought not to be overlooked, though they often are. These include how to create the resonance of time passing – often a long time –  between the characters and events of the novel and the author’s and reader’s present; and how to bring the past to life without pretending, or encouraging the reader to pretend, because she or he feels so ‘close’ to the characters, that it is, necessarily, anything like the world we live in today.









  • So many aussie books don’t make it to America. A shame really, but Text has released some great titles here. The Other Side of the World is available here on Amazon only used for $45.00 and up.

    August 2, 2015 — 1:40
  • I agree, Guy. It is a shame that so many Aussie books don’t make it to America. And $45 on Amazon! is that the publishers’ decision, do you reckon?

    You’d think that digital publishing would be perfect for Australian authors, since we’re so far, physically, from North America and Europe.

    August 2, 2015 — 3:20
  • What an interesting reflection on historical novels. It’s not a genre that I like in general, and on reflection I wonder if that has something to do with what you say in your last paragraph, that tendency to interpret the world of the past by our current mores. On a different tack, there is also a problem for me with novels that very richly create the world of another time, so much so that the narrative seems inserted, not organic. I recently read Sarah Waters’ “The Paying Guests”, and while I admired the way she created the post-war world of London, I found the story quite cliched, as if she were simply rerunning favourite themes set in a different time.

    August 2, 2015 — 4:45
  • Thanks for your comment, Gert. I remember you saying you weren’t drawn to historical fiction, and it’s good to have your further thoughts on this. What about historical comedy? It’s a cheeky question, I know, but you’re such wonderful comic writers, the two of you, that it prompts me to wonder if comedy dares to venture where other kinds of fiction can’t?

    August 3, 2015 — 4:37
    • Mmm, interesting question, Dorothy. I think we’re probably too lazy to do the research, though we do love to recreate the authorial voice of earlier times. Would you class Iarcus Oralto as historical comedy?

      August 3, 2015 — 8:29
  • You’re right about those authorial voices of earlier times. ‘Crane Mansions’ has some delightful ones. I answer to your question – from the extracts I’ve read, yes. Could it be called a costume drama with exotic twists? I’m being presumptuous and would have to read the whole thing, which I’m looking forward to doing.

    August 4, 2015 — 0:44
  • Hi Dorothy

    just read in the paper that this has won the Readings Prize for New Fiction. They clearly agree with you!

    October 27, 2015 — 21:32
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