6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Murmur’ to ‘Academy Street’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which can only mean one thing: it’s Six Degrees of Separation time!

You can find out more about this meme via Kate’s blog, but essentially every month Kate chooses a particular book as a starting point from which to create a chain by linking to six other books using common themes.

Here’s this month’s #6Degrees. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

The starting point is:

‘Murmur’ by Will Eaves (2018)

I haven’t read Murmur — about the inner life of Alan Turing which won the 2019 Wellcome Book Prize last month. This book was also joint winner of the (lesser known) 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize, which is for the best fiction published by publishers with fewer than five full-time employees. Another book on the longlist for that prize was…

Soviet Milk

1. ‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena (2018)
This powerful novella, translated from Latvian, explores motherhood, the freedom to pursue your calling and life under Soviet rule. It is a highly emotional read (I cried at the end) very much focused on a strained mother-daughter relationship, which is also the focus of…

My Mother, A Serial Killer

2. ‘My Mother, A Serial Killer’ by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans (2018)
This is the real life story of an Australian woman who murdered her husband in the 1950s, then killed two other men she knew. She only came to justice after her eldest daughter, Hazel Baron, turned her into police. Another story about a woman accused of murder is…

3. ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent (2013)
This is a fictionalised account of the life and crimes of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who was the last person to be executed in Iceland. Agnes had been convicted for her role in the murder of two men in 1828 but had no recourse to a fair trial. Her tale is a tragic one of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, which is also what happens to the protagonist in…

4. Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood (1997)
Did she do it or didn’t she do it? This is the question that plagues the reader throughout this extraordinary novel based on a true crime in which teenage maid Grace Marks was accused of murdering her employer and his mistress in 19th century Canada. Found guilty, her death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. A doctor working in the burgeoning field of psychiatry tries to secure her a pardon, but you are never quite sure of his real motives. Another novel starring a psychiatrist is…

5. ‘Trauma’ by Patrick McGrath (2009)
In this story we meet a psychiatrist coming to terms with the break-up of his marriage seven years earlier. He treats patients who have gone through traumatic events but seems largely unable to confront his own demons, including a problematic relationship with his own (alcoholic) mother. The story is set in Manhattan, which is also the setting for…

6. Academy Street’ by Mary Costello(2014)
This is a profoundly moving story about one woman’s quiet, unassuming life from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement (as nurse) in New York more than half a century later. I read this one when it first came out in paperback and it was my favourite read of that year, helped partly by the beautiful pared back language but also the 1950s Manhattan setting. It remains one of the most emotionally potent stories I’ve ever read — of loneliness, of literature, of never quite fitting in. I wish she’d hurry up and write another novel!

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from an award-winning novel about a British cryptanalyst to a story about a woman’s life lead quietly in 1950s Manhattan. Have you read any of these books? 

1001 books, Anchor Books, Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Margaret Atwood, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, USA

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaids Tale

Fiction – paperback; Anchor Books; 311 pages; 1998.

We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.

First published in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is going through a revival right now thanks mainly to the Hulu TV production, which screened in the US earlier this year and is currently being shown on Channel 4 here in the UK.

My edition, by Anchor Books, has been sitting on my shelf unread ever since picking it up in a charity shop more than a decade ago. I decided to read it before I started watching the 10-part TV series, so I packed it in my suitcase on a recent trip to the Greek island of Rhodes and devoured it one (unseasonably) rainy day.

A classic feminist novel

What’s left to say about this classic that hasn’t already been said? Most of you will know it’s a dystopian novel where women are seen solely as reproductive chattels, that they live in a strictly organised patriarchal society, but are governed by other women, known as Aunts, and that they have no rights: they cannot earn money, wear make-up, listen to music or read books.

And you will also know that women must wear a strict uniform influenced by old-school Roman Catholic nuns, puritanical Christians and Islamic abayas. And that the handmaids are assigned to Commanders, wealthy men who are married to infertile women, for the sole purpose of bearing them children.

But in case you haven’t read the book, nor seen the TV series, let me elaborate further.

First-person narrator

The story is narrated in the first person by Offred (not her real name) in a dry, almost clinical manner:

I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five seven without shoes. I have trouble remembering what I used to look like. I have viable ovaries. I have one more chance.

There’s a bittersweet pathos to her voice because she’s old enough to remember a time before these misogynistic laws came in and how things got so horribly turned on their head in what seems like the blink of an eye.

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on Islamic fanatics, at the time.
Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.
I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?
That’s when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.
Look out, said Moira to me, over the phone. Here it comes.
Here what comes? I said.
You wait, she said. They’ve been building up to this. It’s you and me up against the wall, baby. She was quoting an expression of my mother’s, but she wasn’t intending to be funny.

Laws are brought in overnight that forbid women from working, holding a bank account, owning property or being gay. Their lives are now restricted to the merest of functions, but the book posits an interesting theory: that taking away women’s freedom has created a safer, more comfortable, world for them:

We’ve given them [women] more than we’ve taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don’t you remember the singles’ bars, the indignity of high school blind dates? The meat market. Don’t you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the one’s who couldn’t? Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.

Uncomfortable reading

I won’t elaborate further on the plot, but let’s just say the book makes for uncomfortable reading (the TV series, or the few episodes that I have viewed so far, are even more uncomfortable), but it’s an impressive, thought-provoking story that poses the question, what if…? What if rules restricting our freedom were brought in overnight? What if everything we take for granted now was taken away from us? What if we — and when I say “we”, I essentially mean white Western women for that is who this book is aimed at — could no longer earn money, be educated and lead independent lives?

There’s no denying that reading this book in the current political climate it’s hard not to see echoes of Trump’s America and the “new normal” in it  — by which I mean it’s a prescient warning about how quickly things can change and new regimes/eras can be ushered in before we’ve had a chance to realise what’s happening.

Interestingly, for a novel that’s written in such a coolly detached voice and with little or no dialogue in it, it is a highly engaging read. I can understand why The Handmaid’s Tale is a modern classic; it’s influenced many books that have followed, not the least Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, which makes a nice companion piece to this one.

But even so, I felt slightly too old for this story to have too much of an impact on me: if I’d read it, say, in my twenties, I think its power might have resonated with me more. That said, it’s a terrific, albeit horrific, read.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood, first published in 1985, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it describes Atwood’s prose as “chillingly graphic” and her imagined world showing what happens when sexual oppression is taken to “its extreme conclusion”.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Hachette Digital, literary fiction, Margaret Atwood, Publisher, Setting

‘The Robber Bride’ by Margaret Atwood


Fiction – Kindle edition; Hachette Digital; 576 pages; 2009.

Margaret Atwood is one of those authors I know I should read more of but never do. I read Alias Grace more than four years ago, so thought it was about time I try something else by her. I opted for The Robber Bride on the sole basis that it was chunky enough to keep me entertained on a seven-hour flight from Abu Dhabi to London Heathrow.

The story, first published in 1993, is a decidedly weird one and features one of the kookiest characters I’ve ever come across in modern fiction. Zenia (pronounced with a long e, as in seen) is a ruthless, manipulative woman, who befriends three other women — academic Tony, business woman Roz, and free-spirit Charis — living in Toronto and turns their lives upside down in more ways than one. Zenia, you see, likes attached men, but the only way she can get close to them is by sidling up to their partners and ingratiating herself.

But Zenia has done her dash with Tony, Roz and Charis, and when she is blown up “during some terrorist rampage or other in Lebanon” they heave a collective sigh of relief. But while Zenia dead is no longer a threat, she has left an indelible mark on all of them. When she is spotted, five years later, alive and well at their favourite lunch-time restaurant, they don’t know quite what to do. Should they confront her? Pretend they haven’t noticed? Hope she goes away of her own accord?

The story is divided into hefty chunks in which each character, bar Zenia, gets to tell her tale, specifically how she met Zenia, what Zenia did to her and how they react to her return from the dead.

Zenia’s presence looms large right at the beginning of the novel, but it’s never quite clear what she’s supposed to have done, or even what she looks like. There are plenty of hints suggesting she’s a trouble-maker and someone not to be trusted, but I couldn’t help wondering if she might, in fact, be a vampire, as this paragraph suggests:

Tony was the first of them to befriend Zenia; or rather, Tony was the first one to let her in, because people like Zenia can never step through your doorway, can never enter and entangle themselves in your life, unless you invite them. There has to be a recognition, an offer of hospitality, a word of greeting.

And later, towards end of novel, Roz bemoans the fact that the back-from-the-dead Zenia is looking younger than ever:

Doesn’t she ever age? thinks Roz bitterly. What kind of blood does she drink?

And while Zenia may or may not be human, there’s no doubt that she is a parasite. She looks for willing victims and sucks them dry. She befriends people and uses them for her own ends.

She’s also a compulsive liar. Among other things, she tells Tony that she is a White Russian and was a child prostitute in Paris. She tells Charis that her mother was a gypsy who was stoned to death by Romanian peasants, and later, when trying to worm her way back into Charis’s affections, she tells her that she has cancer. These are just small examples of her conniving, dishonest ways.

The story is very readable — although it’s incredibly long and could easily have lost 200 pages without sacrificing the plot. Its strength lies in characterisation. While Zenia is the stand-out, all three women are strongly drawn and believable. The depiction of their friendship, despite their very different personalities, is authentic.

But I couldn’t ignore the feminist agenda which plagues this book. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that all the men in this story are weak-willed or unfaithful, and that Zenia, the man-eater, is cut from the same cloth. Indeed, upon hearing about Zenia’s behaviour, Roz’s colleague Boyce tells her to check that she’s really a woman. “It could be a man in a dress,” he suggests.

At times the story reminded me very much of Muriel Spark’s wonderful novels. I think it was largely the darkness of the lead character, her wicked ways and the strong streak of humour which runs throughout the narrative.

And while Atwood does not allow Zenia to tell her own story, thereby depriving us of discovering her real motivations, it allows us, the reader, to determine her agenda for ourselves: was she a mean-spirited tart intent on stealing husbands, or an angel in disguise rescuing her female friends from the men that would destroy them? Only you can decide.

1001 books, 1001 Books to read before you die, Anchor Books, Author, Book review, Canada, crime/thriller, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Margaret Atwood, Publisher, Setting

‘Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood


Fiction – paperback; Anchor Books; 480 pages; 1997.

Did she do it or didn’t she do it? Is she a bloodthirsty murderess, or was she simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?

These are the questions that form the driving force of this remarkable novel by Margaret Atwood, who takes this captivating true story and truly makes it her own.

Set in Canada in the nineteenth century and based on a real-life crime, Alias Grace is about a teenage maid, Grace Marks, who is tried for the brutal murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his mistress, Nancy Montgomery. She is found guilty and sentenced to death but has this commuted to life imprisonment, while her “accomplice” is hanged.

Talk therapy

Grace, a poor immigrant from Northern Ireland who has cut all ties with her family, tells her story to Dr Simon Jordan in a long series of visits he makes to her prison cell. Dr Jordan, who works in the burgeoning field of mental illness, is ‘hired’ by a group of spiritualists who believe Grace is innocent and want to secure her a pardon.

But the good doctor has problems — professional, emotional and moral —of his own, and before long it is difficult to tell who is the supposed crazed criminal and who is not.

Initially, I found Alias Grace a little difficult to get into. The chapters are narrated in alternate voices and formats — Grace’s “interviews” with Dr Jordan involve her telling her story from the time she left Northern Ireland to the aftermath of the murders, while Dr Jordan’s story is revealed through letters written to him and by him — which take some time to propel the narrative forward.

Once you understand the rhythm of the book, it gently sucks you in and I found it difficult to put down because I was itching to get to the point where Grace would reveal what really happened on that fateful day.

Clever structure

Atwood structures this novel in a very clever way so that the reader is drip-fed information on an almost need-to-know basis.

She also manages to successfully get inside two very different heads and tells their individual stories in a convincing way (personally, I preferred Grace’s narrative, although I largely expect she was prone to exaggeration).

And her writing is often beautiful. Take this example, one of my favourites, in which Grace is revealing what happened when she flees the scene of the murders:

And I thought, I am riding through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, as it says in the Psalm; and I attempted to fear no evil, but it was very hard, for there was evil in the wagon with me, like a sort of mist. So I tried to think about something else. And I looked up at the sky, which did not have a cloud in it, and was filled with stars; and it seemed so close I could touch it, and so delicate I could put my hand right through it, like a spiderweb spangled with dewdrops.
But then as I looked, a part of it began to wrinkle up, like the skin on scalding milk; but harder and more brittle, and pebbled, like a dark beach, or like black silk crepe; and then the sky was only a thin surface, like paper, and it was being singed away. And behind it was a cold blackness; and it was not Heaven or even Hell that I was looking at, but only emptiness. This was more frightening than anything I could think of, and I prayed silently to God to forgive my sins; but what if there was no God to forgive me? And then I reflected that perhaps it was the outer darkness, with the wailing and gnashing of teeth, where God was not. And as soon as I had this thought, the sky closed over again, like water after you have thrown a stone; and was again smooth and unbroken, and filled with stars.

Without wishing to spoil the ending, I have to say I am still largely undecided as to whether Grace Marks was guilty or not.

Whether I missed a key element of the plot or whether this is what Atwood deliberately intended, I do not know. Suffice it to say this is an intriguing and sometimes perplexing book, but it’s an entertaining one too, and it’s certainly made me more interested in reading more by this highly acclaimed author.

‘Alias Grace’ by Margaret Attwood, first published in 1996, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it states the novel includes “elements of social and feminist comment” and explores the “relationships between sex and violence in a historically repressed society”.