Jay Neugeboren is an accomplished writer of both fiction and non-fiction. The Other Side of the World is a masterful work of fiction that actually contains three sections or stories, each with its own unique sensibility.
The book follows Charlie Eisner, a young, single professional who is living a successful life in Singapore. His elderly father, an eccentric retired college professor and writer, anchors the first portion of the book as Charlie returns to the states after the death of a friend. Charlie’s purpose in returning is to ‘pay respects to Nick’s family’ but the reader quickly intuits that there is much more to the story than this. The relationship between Charlie and his father, Max, plays out in candid conversations and wry affection when Charlie learns that one of Max’s former students (and a former crush of Charlie’s) has moved in to his childhood home. The story takes off quickly and, with the exception of one or two scenes, the odd quirks and twists feel plausible.
The middle section of the book comes about when Seana, Max’s new roommate and Charlie’s traveling companion, convinces Charlie to tell the story of his life in Singapore leading up to Nick’s untimely death. Many of the questions raised in the beginning of the book are answered in this portion of the novel and Charlie’s character is fleshed out, making him simultaneously more likable and more despicable. Neugeboren’s narrative shines especially bright during the vivid and scintillating descriptions of Charlie’s forays into Borneo from neighboring Singapore.
The culminating story brings Charlie and Seana back together as they continue their journey through complicated family relationships, straddling the mundane and the ridiculous. Seana offers Charlie the gift of a more complete understanding of his father and, in perhaps my favorite part of the story, the author’s depiction of depression as he explores Max’s character more deeply is simply breathtaking. Charlie steadies Seana as she re-immerses herself in the affairs of her own long-estranged family, but lest you think Neugeboren ties everything up neatly in the end, let me assure you that spontaneous twists abound even as the book winds down.
By the time I was finished, I felt as though I had read a much longer novel, given the amount of story that was packed in to this book.