Man Out of Time by Stephanie Bishop

Stephanie Bishop’s third novel, Man Out of Time, tells the story of a family – parents Leon and Frances, and their daughter, Stella – and the impact of Leon’s chronic mental illness.

The story spans decades, beginning with Stella’s ninth birthday when her father’s failure to buy the doll she coveted resulted in his unravelling.

The argument that followed was inevitable. It was not about the gift, but that was the only thing they could bring themselves to talk about, a cause to latch onto in order to expel something else.

Hospital stays and unexplained absences follow and as Stella becomes a rebellious teen, she wonders if, like her father, she will also struggle to exist.

Bishop returns to the themes she visited in The Other Side of the World – trust, expectations and responsibilities within a family. Despite the strong themes, the story lacks cohesiveness. The use of some unusual elements – photos and  diagrams – were contrived and distracting, although there was an oddly satisfying two-page list of things Leon said ‘no’ to that illustrated the relentlessness and chaos of his thoughts –

No to the hum of the fridge.
No to polka dots on anything.
No to jazz.
No to sequins of leopard print.
No to the banal.
No to the perfection of copperplate.
No to cable-knitted jumpers.
No to electric bar heaters.
No to guinea pigs.
No to roses or sausages…

The parts of the story that explored Leon’s psychosis were interesting, however, there’s a thin line between creating a plot point and conflating certain behaviours with a particular mental illness – when you start to get into the territory of stereotypes and generalisations without clear explanation, it weakens the narrative.

I found much of the writing overly descriptive and awkward. For example –

On the morning of their marriage he had come to Frances with his shirtsleeves hanging and passes her the cufflinks; for the life of him he could not keep the cuff ready to push the metal bars through the buttonhole. Would you? he asked, lifting his wrists and showing her his disarray. He passed her the links and they sat down on the edge of the bed, the links on the blanket beside her. Show me, she said, and he proffered her his wrists, both together, the sides of his little fingers just touching.
Frances bent over him, fiddles, the tips of her fingers brushing his wrist skin as she worked one link in and fastened it, then the other.

I have a picture in my mind when I’m reading and details such as ‘little fingers just touching’ strays into the ‘telling me’ zone rather than ‘showing me’. So, rather than seeing the intimacy in this pre-wedding moment, I’m thinking through the logistics. The description goes on to say ‘He bent over to kiss her hair, then she looked up, clutching his hand in hers…’ So then I was thinking, ‘Hang on, how does that work? Weren’t they sitting next to each other on the bed?’ And suddenly, the reading experience has become laborious.

Some readers will find this book incredibly immersive whereas I found it meandering and vague, simply not my style.

2/5 Given the blurb (which suggests a mystery), I had hoped for something more compelling.

There were few, if any mentions of food in this book, so I’m going with a birthday party favourite (I certainly would have had jelly oranges at my ninth birthday).

Note: this book comes with trigger warnings (suicide, abuse, chronic mental illness).

13 responses

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  2. Bother. I didn’t really like The Other Side of the World but I could see that Bishop had writing talent so I bought this one…
    Now I know what’s going to happen to it. It’s going to sit on my shelves for about five years, getting pushed out of the way by books that are more appealing, and eventually I will face up to facts and take it to the op shop…

    • I would not have read this were it not for the Stella longlisting (I wasn’t a huge fan of The Other Side and if I don’t enjoy the writing style I’m unlikely to read another book by that author – too many other authors/books out there to discover!)

      • Getting more attention that it should, perhaps, because of the current preoccupation with mental illness in OzLit? (I got offered two more for review this week…)

      • I think so. Plus there’s a trend toward ‘soft mysteries’ set in families. As you know, I like stories with mental health and grief themes but not when it’s the topic of every second book!

  3. Hmmm I have this and Little Gods next on my Stella TBR….looks like Little Gods will be next up 🙂 Thanks for making the decision easy.
    By the by I’ve just finished (& reviewed) Noah Glass – loved it!

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  5. That passage about the cufflinks is enough to convince me this isn’t for me – I just found it really hard to read, it wasn’t flowing and I had to go back and re-read a few times. I don’t mind hard books but I don’t like it when they feel like needlessly hard work, if that makes sense! But orange jellies look fun – I think I’ll make them with my nieces 🙂

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