This is a slim volume–237 pages–that an avid reader can start and finish in a weekend without too many social plans. If that is your plan, however, you may wish to make sure significant people in your life are out of town because this novel creates a funk that swells until it swallows you. It’s the early 1960s in England and Charlotte is a new mom who today we might say is suffering from postpartum depression and an artist who has stopped painting. Or just sleep deprivation and the joy of new motherhood. Her husband, a poetry lecturer, adores her, but seems uncertain how to help her. Her only relief derives from the English countryside. He immigrated from India to England as a child, pushed by his parents to leave before India gained independence and the world became less favorable to a young Anglo-Indian boy. India is not home. Neither is England, with its cold, gray, dampness. Sun, Henry decides, is the answer, and that can be found, with sponsored passage, in Australia. When Charlotte learns she is pregnant again, she gives in to this idea and finds herself in a countryside that brings her no joy, in a small house with two small children, with no friends or family in the neighborhood, and her husband in his office at the local university. Charlotte does not disguise her unhappiness for long. Henry hides his as he struggles against subtle and not-so-subtle racism and increasingly admits he belongs nowhere. Their situation seems to improve when Charlotte makes friends, but as she makes connections, Henry becomes more troubled. His students walk out of lectures. He is moved into a smaller more remote office. When he hears from India that his mother is near death, he leaves Charlotte and the girls and fails to write or call for weeks. When he returns to Australia, Charlotte is gone, the girls with a friend.
Bishop creates a claustrophobic world that drags you into Charlotte’s negative lens. Her sense of being trapped and bitter slips from the page into your own heart. This may have been augmented by my reading the novel first thing in the morning with the house dark and my family asleep, so perhaps try reading in a brightly sunlit room with happiness around you.
Charlotte does not seem to see Henry as anything other than English, or at least she does not ruminate on it openly. However, a key interaction between them in Australia is when he asks her to paint him in order to get her painting again. His instinct regarding her needs was correct, but his estimate of the time required was far too short and many evenings of her seeing him without looking at him leave them both slightly unsettled. This in combination with Charlotte’s attraction to a very pale Englishman suggest she does see Henry’s difference, even if she does not name it or admit it to herself.
I was unsettled myself by this novel and by its ending. It is atmospheric, but not satisfying. I wanted to shake both Henry and Charlotte at the same time that I longed to put them in the 1980s or 1990s to see if they would fall into the same patterns or if the 1960s were just too much for them. Several times I offered thanks to the gods that I was born in a time of more domestic conveniences and in which women were able and expected to continue working and having professional identities, even though such opportunity gave rise to its own difficulties.