6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘The Dry’ to ‘Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeI had so much fun doing last month’s Six Degrees of Separation book meme, that I’m back to do it again this month!

Six Degrees of Separation, which is hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, is a great way of discovering new books and new authors to read. You can find out more about it via Kate’s blog, but essentially every month a book is chosen as a starting point and then you create a chain by linking to six other books using common themes.

Here’s this month’s meme. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

The starting point is:

The Dry

‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper (2016)
The Dry is a wonderfully evocative literary crime novel set during Australia’s millennium drought. That same drought features in…

The Hands by Stephen Orr

1. ‘The Hands: An Australian Pastoral’ by Stephen Orr (2015)
Set on a remote cattle station in South Australia, The Hands tells the story of three generations of the same family living side by side. It explores the fraught tensions, mainly between fathers and sons, as the drought results in ever-diminishing returns and ever-increasing debts. This struggle to make a living on the land, leads me to…

2. ‘The Tie that Binds’ by Kent Haruf (1984)
Haruf’s debut novel follows the fortunes (or perhaps I should say misfortunes) of a pioneering farming family on the high plains of Colorado. This beautifully rendered drama depicts the loneliness and hardship of rural life, as well as the untold sacrifices one woman, Edith Goodenough, makes for her father and brother to ensure the farm remains operational against the odds. The novel is an extraordinary portrait of an ordinary woman, which is also the focus of…

3. ‘Bird in the Snow’ by Michael Harding (2008)
Bird in the Snow tells the story an 81-year-old Irish woman looking back on her life. Told in a series of vignettes laced with black humour and pathos, it shows how Birdie’s life has been marked by tragedy and other family dramas, but it has also been filled with great happiness, joy and love. Birdie’s reminiscences are sparked by the death of her son. An elderly Irish woman newly bereaved also stars in…

4. ‘On Canaan’s Side’ by Sebastian Barry (2011)
On Canaan’s Side is essentially a confessional written by the elderly Lilly Bere whose beloved grandson, a soldier returned from the “desert war”, has just killed himself. His death leads Lilly to think about her own life, including her early childhood in Dublin and her subsequent immigration to America in the 1920s with a death warrant on her head. Living a life in fear is also the subject of…

Fairyland by Sumner Locke Eliott

5. ‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Locke Elliott (1990)
Fairyland was Locke Elliott’s final novel but it could also be seen as a thinly veiled memoir of what it was like to grow up in the 1930s and 40s hiding your homosexuality from the real world. It is, by turns, a heart-rending, intimate and harrowing portrayal of one man’s search for love in an atmosphere plagued by the fear of condemnation, violence, prosecution and imprisonment. Hiding yourself from the real world is also the inspiration behind…

Eugenia by Mark Tedeschi

6. ‘Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage’ by Mark Tedeschi QC (2012)
The subject of this fascinating non-fiction book is Eugenia Falleni, who scandalised Australia in the 1920s when she was charged with the murder of her wife. She had been living as a man for 22 years and during that time had married twice. No one knew her true identity, not even the women whom she married — indeed, her second wife thought she was pregnant to him! As well as being a compelling true crime book, Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage is also an important story about a troubled individual, who spent her entire life in constant fear of being exposed, shamed and punished by a society that did not accept difference or anyone living outside the codes of what it perceived as “normal” and “moral” conduct. A completely compelling read.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from an award-winning debut crime novel set in rural Australia through to a true story about a transgender man charged with murder in 1920s Sydney.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, Michael Harding, Publisher, Setting

‘Bird in the Snow’ by Michael Harding

Bird-in-the-snow

Fiction – Kindle edition; The Lilliput Press; 220 pages; 2008.

The Lilliput Press, which is based in Dublin, has been canny enough to publish much of its back catalogue in eBook format and to sell those books at competitive prices. This is how I came to discover — and purchase — Michael Harding’s Bird in the Snow.

Irish widow recalling her life

The story is highly reminiscent of Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side in that it tells the story of an old Irish woman, newly bereaved, looking back on her life.

In this case, 81-year-old “Birdie”, as she is known, mourns the death of her only child, Gussie, a lost soul with psychiatric problems, who has just killed himself. On the day before his funeral, she sits in her house alone, thinking about Gussie — “Gussie was jobless and witless and mired in a confusion of his own making. Wandering around the beaches of Connemara. Locked up in a mental hospital” — and where it all went wrong for him.

As she sifts through her memories and old photographs, she also reminisces about wonderful times with her beloved late husband, Alex, and his best friend Hughie Donoghue, a mischievous flute player.

An extraordinary portrait

What emerges is an extraordinary portrait of an ordinary woman. It’s about a plain life richly lived, where nothing much seems to happen, although everything does. Birdie’s life is marked by tragedy and other family dramas, but she has also experienced great happiness, joy and love.

She’s a terrific character. Strong and fiercely independent, the kind of woman who has spent her whole life getting by without fuss or favour, and who rails at the very idea of living in a nursing home:

The nursing home was a prison. They were all old people in it. What would she be doing with a gang of old people? She was only eighty-one. And the place smelled of lavender. She’d never be able to get rid of that. The perfumes of Arabia couldn’t hide what it was: a glorified henhouse for old birds. And what about the grief of walking in and out of each room in her own house for the last time and choosing what to bring with her? She couldn’t bear that. They might as well give her the shovel and tell her to dig her own grave. That’s what she said. That’s what she thought. And Birdie vowed to herself the last big vow of her life. They’ll carry me out of here in a box, she whispered at the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the wall.

But there’s a wicked side to Birdie, too. She makes no bones of the fact that in the early days of her marriage she was a bit of a bitch, not to her husband, but to other women in the community, because she’d snared a vet, someone above her station — and “grew a forest of enemies” for it.

It’s so easy now to look back and admit that she was stuck up. To admit that she was too full of herself living in her splendidly detached mansion, with a perfect child on the back of the bike as she wheeled it into town to rub everyone’s noses in the triumphs they all thought she’d never achieve. And even then, she was fooling nobody only herself. Put a beggar on horseback, they said, and she would ride to hell. Whoosh! Whoosh! That’s how her life went betimes. In a whoosh!

But her proudest achievement was becoming a mother. When Gussie was a child her love for him was reflected in her fierce urge “to smother him with kisses like a thousand petals falling off the wild rose bushes on the avenue”. And then, later, this “urge” was only matched by her disappointment in the way his life had turned out and by her inability to understand him.

Tender and funny

The book is very touching in places, bathed as it is in pathos, but there’s little room for sentimentality here, and Harding gives Birdie a very black sense of humour:

And there was a common room down the hall where she could play cards and bingo, and listen to local musicians who came in every Tuesday night. Do you dance? she asked Birdie. Did she think Birdie was a complete fucken idiot? Of course she didn’t dance. She was eighty-one years of age.

I loved reading Bird in the Snow. It’s a wise, heartfelt book about what it is like to grow old, and in its series of vignettes it perfectly captures those fleeting moments that comprise all our lives between cradle and grave.