6 Degrees of Separation

Six degrees of Separation: From ‘What are you Going Through’ to ‘Travelling in a Strange Land’

It’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).

As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘What Are You Going Through’ by Sigrid Nunez (2021)

At last! A starting book for Six Degrees that I have actually read! According to the blurb, this is a tale about two friends, one of whom asks the other to be there when she chooses to die euthanasia style, but it is so much more complex and convoluted than that. This is a story about stories — the stories we hear, the stories we write, the stories we tell ourselves. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” the opening line from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, is a constant refrain…

‘The Good Soldier’ by Ford Madox Ford (1915)

Set in the Edwardian era, this novel explores the complex and intertwined relationships between two wealthy and seemingly perfect couples who meet every year at a German spa resort. But one of the men, the “good soldier” of the title, likes much younger women and takes several mistresses, while his wife turns a blind eye.

‘The Good Son’ by Paul McVeigh (2015)

This is not a story about adultery; my link is a bit more obvious — it’s simply another book with “good” in the title! It’s a coming-of-age story set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles and is narrated by a schoolboy who’s a smart kid with big dreams. When he gets caught up in events bigger than himself, he must act as the good son to save his family. It’s a really touching tale.

‘Shadows on Our Skin’ by Jennifer Johnston (1977)

The only novel by Jennifer Johnston to be nominated for the Booker Prize, this is another coming-of-age story set during The Troubles. It follows a Derry schoolboy who develops a platonic relationship with a female teacher and then discovers his world opening up…

‘The Temple House Vanishing’ by Rachel Donohue (2020)

A friendship between a teacher and student is key to the brooding mystery in this deeply atmospheric Irish novel published last year. The narrative swings backwards and forwards between the present day and the early 1990s as a journalist investigates the disappearance of a schoolgirl and her charismatic art teacher from an exclusive Irish boarding school 25 years earlier.

‘The Everlasting Sunday’ by Robert Lukins (2018)

Here’s yet another atmospheric tale set in a school in days gone by. It’s about a teenage boy banished to a reform school — based in a Shropshire manor house — because he has been “found by trouble”. Here he meets a cohort of similarly troubled boys, alliances are formed and tensions rise, culminating in a shocking denouement. Thanks to the setting — the UK’s notorious “big freeze” of 1962/63 — this book is chilling in more ways than one.

Travelling in a strange land

‘Travelling in a Strange Land’ by David Park (2018)

A “big freeze” also features in this novel which is set during a severe winter snowstorm. Wedding photographer Tom drives across the UK in treacherous conditions to rescue his son stranded in student lodgings. But that road journey is merely a metaphor for another journey Tom has recently had to make: that of a newly bereaved parent grappling with the death of his oldest son and the legacy of guilt and bewilderment and loss he now feels. It’s a beautiful, eloquent, emotional read.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about euthanasia to one about a parent’s bereavement, via tales about misbehaving men, young boys caught up in The Troubles, a Gothic mystery set in a boarding school and another one set in a reform school.

Have you read any of these books? 

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

1001 books, 20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Ford Madox Ford, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, Vintage

‘The Good Soldier’ by Ford Madox Ford

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 256 pages; 1983.

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

So begins Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier, which was first published in 1915 and has remained in print ever since. It is said to be based on Ford’s own messy personal life.

Set in the Edwardian era and spanning nine years (1902 to 1914), it explores the complex and intertwined relationships between two wealthy and seemingly perfect couples —  John and Florence Dowell, from the USA, and Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, from England — who meet every year at a German spa resort.

The good soldier of the title is Edward Ashburnham, a refined English gentleman, who has a strong public record — “for his good soldiering, for his saving lives at sea, for the excellent landlord he was and the good sportsman” — but, as we come to discover, he isn’t exactly a good husband. He has what we would call a “roving eye”, particularly for much younger women, and over the course of the novel takes several mistresses. He is also involved in various sexual harassment incidents, which are made to go away via blackmail and bribe — such payments threaten Ashburnham’s already dwindling finances.

His wife, well aware of her husband’s shenanigans, turns a blind eye. She’s Catholic, so divorce is impossible, and she loves Edward’s reputation as a fine, upstanding citizen. She takes the best option open to her: she looks after her husband’s welfare and his finances and manages his country home for him so that they can at least keep up appearances without falling into disrepute or impoverishment.

But it’s a thin facade and it soon begins to crack.

An unreliable narrator

The tale is narrated by John Dowell in a kindly, occasionally puzzled, voice, almost as if he can’t believe what has happened to his English friend Ashburnham: he thought he was an upright citizen but now realises he was “morally soft”.

His narrative jumps backward and forwards in time via flashbacks, and as his story unfolds the reader begins to question Dowell’s version of events. He’s an unreliable narrator in the sense that he’s not exactly a paragon of virtue himself and by the end, I wasn’t sure if he had been played by others or done the playing himself.

Initially, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. His young wife Florence has “heart trouble” so he needs to ensure she’s always calm, never panicked, that she has lots of personal space and time to herself. He seems to be consumed with worry about her.  The slightest rise in her heart rate might end in death.

But as his tale proceeds, you realise that the only “heart trouble” Florence has is psychological: she’s having an affair and using her quiet time, in which her bedroom door is always locked, not to quell the beating of her dodgy heart but to have her adulterous way with a married man.

Dowell, who describes himself as a “trained poodle”, is shocked when the affair comes to light, but by then it’s too late to do anything about it: Florence is dead.

A tale of adultery 

As a tale of adulterous love and an exposé on the duplicity of those whose public lives do not match their private personas, The Good Soldier is extraordinarily good.

For a story that is very much about sexual morals, there is little to no sex in it. There’s quite a bit of religion in it, though. There’s a lot about the cultural differences between Americans and Brits (which I enjoyed), and a good smattering of tragedy, including illness, suicide and madness. But it never feels over the top. Madox Ford keeps a tight rein on events and emotions; everything is carefully restrained, so much so I sometimes had to reread passages to ensure I hadn’t missed anything.

It occasionally feels a bit woolly and repetitive, and I found it difficult to truly engage with any of the characters. As much as I liked Dowell’s voice, the rhythm of the sentences and the cool detached nature of the prose, I struggled to like The Good Soldier as a whole. But there’s a lot in this book to discuss — about gender and marriage and love and lust and which characters are true to themselves and which aren’t. It would make a terrific book club read for that reason.

The Good Soldier is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and was adapted for television in 1981.

This is my 11th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 30th for #TBR40. It has been sitting in my TBR for more than a decade, having acquired it via BookMooch when I was an active member in 2005/06.