The Other Daughter by Caroline Bishop:  A gripping and poignant tale of a woman determined to dig out her mother’s past - book review -

The discovery that Switzerland did not grant women national suffrage until 1971 came as a big surprise to Bishop and it is against this political and social backdrop that she brings us two generations of women forty years apart.

Monday, 1st March 2021, 3:45 pm
The Other Daughter

Since she moved to Switzerland in 2013, Caroline Bishop has discovered not just a country ‘as quirky as it is beautiful’ but a place with a fascinating history.

And there was one particular, and seemingly anomalous, corner of Swiss history and culture which grabbed Bishop’s interest and became the inspiration for her debut novel, The Other Daughter, a gripping and poignant tale of a woman determined to dig out her mother’s past.

The discovery that Switzerland did not grant women national suffrage until 1971 came as a big surprise to Bishop and it is against this political and social backdrop that she brings us two generations of women forty years apart.

One is an ambitious young national newspaper reporter working in London in 1976 and intent on visiting Switzerland to interview a radical young feminist who is determined to bring about much-needed change in her country.

The other is a 39-year-old London teacher struggling with the breakdown of her marriage, the death of her beloved mother, and the uncovering of a shocking secret that has blown apart her life and all she ever believed about her herself.

In London’s Fleet Street in 1976, ambitious Oxford graduate Sylvia Tallis has been a junior features writer, working on women’s interest stories, for the past eighteen months but faces daily struggles as a woman in what is very much a man’s world.

It’s only five years since Swiss women were given the vote and Sylvia wants her reluctant boss to let her travel to Lausanne to interview a woman called Eveleyne Buchs, a radical young feminist from a Swiss women’s rights group.

While she was at university, Sylvia met and fell in love with fellow student Jim and although they are now engaged and due to soon be married, Sylvia has made it clear to her future husband that she doesn’t want children until her career is ‘at a suitable point.’

And when her boss finally agrees to fund her trip to Lausanne, Sylvia sees it as the springboard to getting herself noticed as a serious, up-and-coming writer on women’s issues…

Forty years later, 39-year-old London teacher Jess has still not got over the death of her mother, and the breakdown of her marriage which had been dogged by years of failed IVF and ‘trying’ unsuccessfully to have a baby.

Two years ago, shortly after her mother died, Jess discovered – by a quirk of fate – a shocking secret about her birth and, after various incidents at work, she is taking an enforced sabbatical and travelling to Switzerland in search of answers.

Compelled to seek out the truth about her journalist mother’s time in the country forty years earlier, Jess has landed a job teaching English to the two children of Swiss couple Julia and Michel at their home in Montreux.

Tired of ‘the hollowness of so many endings’ at home, and despite her father’s misgivings about the trip, Jess is eager to find out what happened to her mother while she was in Switzerland and she has just two clues… the name of a hospital and a woman called Eveleyne Buchs.

The Other Daughter is a timely and salutary story – full of powerful emotions and beautifully drawn portraits of female relationships – which takes the lid off the past and explores some of the very difficult choices that women of all generations must face in their lifetimes.

Garnering pockets of Switzerland’s diverse culture and unique political system, and played out across a stunning Alpine backdrop, Bishop’s tale of mystery, history and fractured families explores the age-old fight for women’s rights and the struggle to succeed in a man’s world.

Social attitudes to morality, and issues of state child welfare, also come under the spotlight as the experiences and challenges of Jess and Sylvia – forty years apart – weave seamlessly together in this compelling page-turner.

Beautifully written, well researched, and with a cast of characters to cheer for, Bishop’s debut proves to be as informative as it is entertaining.

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £7.99)