6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘How to be Both’ to ‘Moderato Cantabile’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeYou all know that I don’t do memes, right? Well, I’ve decided to make an exception to the rule.

I’ve been reading and following the Six Degrees of Separation book meme, which is hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest and runs on the first Saturday of the month, for a long time. You can find out more about it via this post on Kate’s blog, but essentially every month a book is chosen as a starting point and then six other books are linked to it to form a chain.

It’s a great way of discovering new books and new authors to read.

Every time I see this meme pop up in my WordPress Reader I think, next month I’ll give it a go. And then of course the next month comes around and I think the same thing. And this month I figured it was about time I pulled my finger out and just did it.

So welcome to my first ever Six Degrees of Separation meme. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

The starting point is:

How to be both by Ali Smith

‘How to be Both’ by Ali Smith (2014)
Typically, I haven’t read How to be Both, so I can’t point you to a review, but I have read another Ali Smith novel, which is the first book in the chain:

1. ‘The Accidental’ by Ali Smith (2005)
Published in 2005, The Accidental was one of Smith’s early novels. I read it with a mixture of confusion and admiration, for it was quite unlike anything I’d read before and I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not at the time. The writing was hypnotic and full of wonderful wordplay, but the characters — all on holiday in Norfolk one hot summer — were hard to get a handle on. In my review I said it had a “touch of the Paul Austers” about it, which leads me to the next book in the chain:

2. ‘Invisible’ by Paul Auster (2009)
Auster has a reputation for writing complex post-modernist novels but I like the way he uses meta-fiction to play with the reader’s mind: I often find his novels have an uncanny way of seeping into your unconsciousness to leave a long-lasting, and sometimes unsettling, impression. He’s not for everyone, but Invisible — his 16th novel! — is wholly accessible and quite a fun read for anyone wanting an introduction to his work. It’s essentially about a writer and how he comes to write a controversial book. It then examines whether that book should have been published because of its damaging revelations about the real life protagonist within it. The morality of writing novels is also explored in the next novel in the chain:

3. ‘About the Author’ by John Colapinto (2002)
About the Author is a hugely entertaining plot-driven novel about a struggling writer who steals someone else’s manuscript and gets it published under his own name. It was one of the first books I ever reviewed on this blog way back in 2002, but I still remember it as a fun fast-paced read that explored lots of issues around writing and the trappings of fame. The trappings of fame are explored in the next novel in the chain:

4. ‘The Thrill of it All’ by Joseph O’Connor (2014)
A wonderful fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s, The Thrill of it All charts the story of Irish-born Robbie Goulding’s climb to fame and his subsequent slide into obscurity. It’s laugh-out-loud funny in places, but it’s also tinged with sadness and melancholia. It’s an ideal book for music lovers, especially if you like blues, ska, New Wave, punk or rock. Music lovers will also appreciate the next novel in the chain:

Forensic records society by magnus mills

5. ‘The Forensic Records Society’ by Magnus Mills (2017)
The Forensic Records Society is typically kooky Magnus Mills fare: two friends set up a record appreciation society in which members meet in a pub to take it in turns to play 7-inch vinyl singles to listen to the music forensically. There is to be no discussion, no commentary, no judgement of other people’s tastes. However, not everyone follows the rules and a rival group forms. The rivalry between them is what makes this story so funny — and quirky. Again, maybe not a book for everyone, but I’m a longtime Mills fan and I loved spotting the musical references throughout because the text is littered with song titles, minus the name of the performers, so it’s fun testing your knowledge along the way. Music is also the inspiration behind the next — and final — book in the chain:

6. ‘Moderato Cantabile’ by Marguerite Duras (1958)
The title of this French novella is a direction for playing music in a “moderate and melodious” way, which could also be taken as a metaphor for the book’s structure, which is based around eight short chapters. It’s a simple story about a woman who becomes obsessed with a murder that happens when her son is taking a piano lesson. But it’s not really about music; it’s more about class divisions and societal expectations, and is written in a beguiling, melancholic tone of voice, which I loved.

So that’s my first ever #6Degrees: from an award-winning British novel about art through to a French novella inspired by a musical direction.

Ali Smith, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Accidental’ by Ali Smith


Fiction – hardcover; Hamish Hamilton; 320 pages; 2005.

Ali Smith’s critically acclaimed The Accidental was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and recently won the Whitbread Novel Award. Despite this, I did not know anything about the storyline. Even the dust jacket blurb gives very little away.

Reading a book ‘blind’ like this, does not happen very often for me. Often my book reading choices are determined by recommendations by friends, reviews I’ve read in print or online, or, when I’m browsing in a store, the book cover image, the blurb and the first page. This means I usually know what the story is about.

The first two chapters of The Accidental were hard work because I had no reference points to guide me. But I was lulled into continuing the book because of the hypnotic writing, the subversive use of language and the continual word play. Smith does not so much use words to convey a story but caresses them into submission.

She also litters her writing with modern day references, distinctly British events that happened at the time in which the novel is set (2003), and I took great delight in identifying them, so that reading The Accidental was like a game, trying to pin down the real life news stories within its pages.

That aside, what was this novel about? In short, it’s a stranger-on-the-doorstep scenario. Amber, a beguiling 30-something woman, arrives uninvited on the doorstep of a holiday home in Norfolk. Here, the Smart family are in residence for the long, hot summer, and, unbeknown to them, Amber is here to shake up their lives a little.

She is invited in by Michael, the philandering college professor, who thinks she has come to see his wife, Eve, an author. In turn, Eve thinks Amber is one of Michael’s ‘flings’ and doesn’t bother to pay her much attention.

Meanwhile Amber becomes the focus of affection for 17-year-old Magnus, who becomes her lover, and 12-year-old Amber, who develops a schoolgirl crush on her.

Over the course of the summer each member of the Smart household becomes changed and moulded by Amber’s presence, learning much about themselves in the process.

The beauty of this odd and intriguing novel is that each chapter is narrated by a different member of the family, so that you are able to gain an insight into the changes that are occurring within.

Did I like this book? I still don’t know. I admire the inventiveness (and cleverness) of the writing. And the ending was satisfying (and quite brilliant), but I did not particularly feel for any of the characters and I read most of it feeling slightly nonchalant about it all.

That said, I do suspect that this is going to be one of those stories that stays with me a long time. It does have a touch of the Paul Austers about it. And I’m sure a few months down the track I’m going to think, ‘you know what, I should have raved about that book a lot more’.