6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Beezus and Ramona’ to ‘The Well’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate)!

This month, the starting book is…

Beezus and Ramona’ by Beverly Cleary (2020)
I haven’t read this book. Indeed, I am not familiar with this author’s work at all. I know she writes for children and that she recently died, aged 104. I had to look up this title on Amazon to find out what it was about and it tells me it is “a humorous portrayal of the ups and downs of sisterhood”, which made me think about all the novels I had read featuring sisters… so the first link in the chain is…

‘Our Shadows’ by Gail Jones (2020)
This literary novel, which I read last year, is about two estranged sisters who grew up in the remote gold mining town of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. One of the sisters is widowed relatively young after her husband dies of mesothelioma, a malignant tumour that is caused by inhaled asbestos fibres. This made me think of…

‘Dustfall’ by Michelle Johnston (2018)
Set in Wittennoom, Western Australia, this novel looks at the town’s deadly legacy in which hundreds of asbestos miners developed terminal mesothelioma. The story follows two doctors, a generation apart, who go to Wittenoom as a way to distance themselves from mistakes they have made in their medical careers. This made me think of…

‘The Good Doctor’ by Damon Galgut (2003)
Set in the “new” post-apartheid South Africa, this novel is about a staff doctor working in a deserted rural hospital, who is forced to share his room with a younger newly qualified doctor. This medical pairing is a metaphor for the new South Africa versus the old South Africa, but it is also an intriguing look at what happens to people living in isolated communities, where relationships between people can become strained and oppressive because they are living in such close proximity to one another. This made me think of…

‘The Grass is Singing’ by Doris Lessing (1950)
Lessing’s debut novel, this astonishingly gripping story is set in what was then Southern Rhodesia. It’s about a marriage between a “town girl” and a farmer which slowly begins to unravel over time, culminating in a murder. This marriage, under pressure on a farm, reminds me of…

Snake by Kate Jennings

‘Snake’ by Kate Jennings (2001)
This lyrically written novella follows the course of a marriage between two incompatible people in interwar Australia. The couple lives in an old house on an 800-acre irrigated farm 500 miles from the nearest city. The isolation puts a lot of strain on everyone. The intensity of the story and the strangeness of the relationship made me think of…

the well

‘The Well’ by Elizabeth Jolley (1986)
Set on a sheep and wheat farm in rural Western Australia, the story charts the story of two women, an elderly widow and the young woman she “adopts” as a kind of daughter figure. It follows what happens when the pair, driving too fast, accidentally hit a creature on the farm track. They dispose of the body by pushing it down the farm’s unused well, which is covered over with a tin roof, but is it human or animal?

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a children’s story about sisters to a strange and almost Gothic friendship between an elderly woman and her young companion, via stories set in rural Australia, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, many set on remote farms and about incompatible relationships. Coincidentally, three of the books are by women writers from my newly adopted state of Western Australia.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Africa, Author, Book review, Doris Lessing, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Grass is Singing’ by Doris Lessing


Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 208 pages; 2013.

The Grass is Singing, originally published in 1950, was Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing‘s debut novel. It brims with tension and shimmers with insight into race relations, colonialism, marriage and rural life in what was then Southern Rhodesia.

Murder mystery

This astonishingly confident book opens in unconventional, some might say brash, style, in the form of a newspaper story by a “special correspondent”:

Mary Turner, wife of Richard Turner, a farmer at Ngesi, was found murdered on the front verandah of their homestead yesterday morning. The houseboy, who has been arrested, has confessed to the crime. No motive has been discovered. It is thought he was in search of valuables.

The first (shocking) chapter charts what happens immediately following the discovery of the body — a muddled confusion of white colonial types acting as judge, jury and executioner. But then the narrative takes an interesting twist and what starts off as a murder mystery becomes the story of how the woman came to live in the area several decades earlier.

The woman — Mary — was once bright, young and independent, living a relatively carefree life in the city. But then, with the clock ticking, she succumbed to social convention and got married, despite the fact she had never felt the need to have a partner and was frightened of sex (in today’s parlance we would probably describe her as “asexual”). Her husband, Dick Turner, is a struggling farmer, who whisks her away to the bush, where she is expected to live a life of rural isolation in a shabby “shack”, running the household and managing the black servant who cooks and cleans for the couple.

This is a shock to Mary’s system, a town girl used to leading a busy work and social life, who must now spend a lot of time alone, in the bush, where the heat is unbearable and her living conditions impoverished. She only sees her husband at breakfast and supper (he spends the intervening hours out in the field running the farm) and she struggles to cope with managing the houseboy, whom she abuses and treats with disdain:

She had never come into contact with natives before, as an employer on her own account. Her mother’s servants she had been forbidden to talk to; in the club she had been kind to the waiters; but the ‘native problem’ meant for her other women’s complaints of their servants at tea parties. She was afraid of them, of course. Every woman in South Africa is brought up to be. In her childhood she had been forbidden to walk out alone and when she had asked why, she had been told in the furtive, lowered, but matter-of-fact voice she associated with her mother, that they were nasty and might do horrible things to her.

Unfortunately, she can’t seem to control her temper and fires a succession of houseboys, one after the other. This frustrates Dick, who bemoans her lack of consideration and tact, and wonders if something is wrong:

What was the matter with her? With him she seemed at ease, quiet, almost maternal. With the natives she was a virago.

But this works both ways, for Mary wonders what is wrong with Dick, whom she soon realises is hopeless with money and hopeless at farming. When she sticks her nose in to help him at one stage, she reaps success, but later, for some inexplicable reason, she gives up and a deep-seated ennui sets in. This later turns into something akin to a kind of madness, which is heartbreaking — and frightening — to follow in the pages of this short novel.

Race relations

As you can probably tell, there’s a lot going on in this book (which is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die — you can see reviews of all the other books I’ve read and reviewed from his helpful guide here). The relationship between Mary and Dick, especially as it begins to unravel over time, is intriguing and sharply observed, but it is the relationship they each have with the natives — Dick considerate, if exploitative; Mary, harsh and belittling — that makes the book such a thought-provoking read about relations between black and white.

And the mystery element of the story makes it a compelling read. Because you know from the outset that Mary meets a violent end, you’re waiting for the moment that might indicate a motivation for her murder: is it something she does or says to the houseboy? Or is it something else entirely? (I chose this book for our book group and we all had different theories — it is certainly not cut and dried.)

Finally, I can’t finish this review without mentioning Lessing’s prose style, which is simple and clean, but often dressed with quietly beautiful phrases. Indeed, I underlined so many passages in my copy, I’m only grateful it was an ebook; a paper edition might not have survived all the pen marks! This is a good example:

It was a wet, sultry morning. The sky was a tumult of discoloured clouds: it looked full of billowing dirty washing. Puddles on the pale soil held a sheen of sky.


Books of the year

My favourite reads of 2008, part 2

Books-of-the-yearYesterday I posted my list of favourite fiction reads for 2008, which basically comprised all those novels I’d read across the year to which I’d given a five-star rating.

Today’s list is a little more chaotic, whimsical and “interesting” in the sense that these are the books that have stuck in my head long after I’ve finished reading and reviewing them.

The list comprises a mix of fiction and non-fiction, and is presented here in alphabetical order by book title:

‘Digging Up the Dead: Uncovering the Life and Times of an Extraordinary Surgeon’ by Druin Burch (non-fiction, 2008)
From my review: ‘Digging Up the Dead looks at the life and times of arguably the world’s first famous surgeon, Astley Cooper (1768-1841), whom Burch — himself a medical doctor — describes as vain, egotistical, nepotistic and “rather wonderful”.’
Why I chose it for this list: This is more than just a biography of a man, it’s the history of modern medicine and how we owe so much to the surgeons who went before. I can no longer walk past any of the big London hospitals — Guys, St Thomas’ — without thinking of this remarkable book.

‘The Fifth Child’ by Doris Lessing (fiction, 1988)
From my review: ‘The Fifth Child is billed as a horror story but it’s not from the Stephen King school of horror — it’s slightly more subtle but oodles more menacing because of it.’
Why I chose it for this list: It deals with so many big themes — is there such a thing as evil? does class structure affect our family lives? to what extent should a mother take responsibility for her child’s misbehaviour? is it responsible to have so many children when you must rely on help to raise them? — that you can’t help but cogitate on it long after you’ve read the last page.

‘Forever’ by Pete Hamill (fiction, 2004)
From my review: ‘Forever is part swashbuckling adventure, part romance, part historical drama, part fable. It spans more than three centuries and tells the story of a poor rural Irish lad who is granted immortality, as long as he never steps foot off the island of Manhattan.’
Why I chose it for this list: It’s beautifully written for a start, but I’ve yet to come across any book that presents the history of Manhattan in such a realistic, entertaining and memorable way.

‘In the Wake’ by Per Petterson (fiction, 2007)
From my review: ‘I found myself unable to stop thinking about this book whenever I put it down. Despite the narrative comprising an endless succession of disjointed memories, Petterson manages to weave them together seamlessly, so you feel like you have entered someone else’s dream thoughts.’
Why I chose it for this list: There’s something about the dreamlike quality of the writing that has stayed with me, but there are certain scenes from this book that still remain fresh in my mind almost nine months after having read it. A fight between the two brothers that begins as ugly fisticuffs but ends with them laughing at the absurdity of their behaviour, is just one.

‘The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left’ by Ed Husain (non-fiction, 2007)
From my review: I never got around to reviewing this book, but it’s an eye-opening account of how Islamic extremism has taken root in modern Britain. As a teenager Husain was radicalised by extreme clerics in Tower Hamlets, East London — and his parents, traditional Muslims, were powerless to do anything. He eventually saw the error of his ways and managed slowly but surely to change his poisoned mindset.
Why I chose it for this list: If we want to understand the root causes of home-grown terrorism this book provides some quite radical (and unexpected) insights. If you listen to the media in this country you’d be forgiven for thinking so many young men turn to radical Islam because they’ve been marginalised by society and want to express their anger and resentment. Husain’s argument is exactly the opposite. He, himself, came from a respectable middle-class family and wanted for nothing. This is an imminently readable book that shows how religious extremists have flourished in a society that values freedom and tolerance. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the difference between traditional Muslims and extremists, and how a peaceful religion has been hijacked by political activists.

‘Nefertiti’ by Michelle Moran (fiction, 2007)
From my review: ‘This is by no means high-brow literary fiction, but it’s an entertaining, fast-paced and thoroughly enjoyable romp, with a smidgen of romance, a touch of war and a little bit of double-dealing thrown in for good measure. I found the ending surprisingly suspenseful but despite the 460-odd pages I didn’t want the story to draw to close, and I was genuinely sad when I reached the final page.’
Why I chose it for this list: Let’s face it, I don’t want you to think I only read heavy stuff all the time. This book by first time novelist Michelle Moran is simply a fun read set during an intriguing period in human history. I’m looking forward to reading the second book in the trilogy, The Heretic Queen, which has been sitting in my reading queue for months now.

‘The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalismby Naomi Klein (non-fiction, 2008)
From my review: This is another book I never got around to reviewing, but I’d describe it as a ‘book of our times’. It made me very angry and basically confirmed all my cynical beliefs about the current Bush administration and other money-hungry governments around the world which have their sights set on getting richer at any cost.
Why I chose it for this list: Because it turned my thinking on its head. It’s by no means a perfect book, and there were some elements I considered slightly far-fetched, but, for the most part the examples Klein uses to support her hypothesis are alarming. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next, especially given the current state of the world economy.

‘The Summer Before the Dark’ by Doris Lessing (fiction, 1973)
From my review:The book is incredibly moving in places — you really get to feel Kate’s pain and anguish as she comes to terms with growing older. But it’s Lessing’s wry and insightful observations of a woman’s sexuality — and of its often unspoken importance to a woman’s sense of self — that this book comes into its own.’
Why I chose it for this list: This story resonated very strongly with me, probably because I’m almost the same age as the main character and know what it’s like to become invisible as you get older. There are certain scenes from this book which have stayed with me.

‘The Unknown Terrorist’ by Richard Flanagan (fiction, 2008)
From my review: ‘Set in Sydney across five hot, summer days, the story follows Gina Davies, a lap dancer known as the Doll, on the run from the law having been accused of helping to plot a terrorist attack. But Gina is entirely innocent. Her “crime” has been no more than having a one-night stand with an attractive stranger, Tariq, who is blamed for three unexploded bombs found at Homebush Olympic Stadium the previous day.’
Why I chose it for this list: This is the first novel I’ve read in a long time that presents the modern world as it really is and does it in such a way that it feels almost too real. Rampant consumerism, the media out of control and the politics of fear, all dished up in one delicious book that I could not put down.

‘Things the Grandchildren Should Know’ by Mark Oliver Everett (memoir, 2008)
From my review: ‘Not only does Everett lose a succession of family members under various tragic circumstances — his father of a heart attack aged just 51, his mother of lung cancer, his drug-addicted older sister of suicide and his air stewardess cousin in the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11 — but many of his friends and colleagues in the music business have also died before their time.’
Why I chose it for this list: This is one of those books that makes you thankful for what you have and not what you don’t have. It’s a book about survival — and for someone with a pessimistic streak as strong as mine it’s a brilliant example of what you can achieve if you put your mind to it. Plus, I have rather fond memories of attending the book launch at St James’ Church in London.