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.

Author, Book review, Corvus, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Rachel Donohue, Setting

‘The Temple House Vanishing’ by Rachel Donohue

Fiction – hardcover; Corvus; 336 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I’m quite partial to an atmospheric read, particularly if it is set in a boarding school and written by an Irish writer, and Rachel Donohue’s debut novel, The Temple House Vanishing, ticks all those boxes. Throw in an intriguing cast of characters and a mystery to solve and I couldn’t be happier. I raced through this book in a matter of days.

I liked a lot of things about this novel, including:

The timeless nature of the story — by which I mean it could be set at almost any point in the past 300 years. The narrative swings backward and forwards between the present day and the early 1990s as a journalist investigates the disappearance of Louisa, a 16-year-old schoolgirl, and Mr Lavelle, her charismatic art teacher, from an exclusive Irish boarding school 25 years earlier. And while the present-day feels like the present day, the time shift feels almost Victorian. I think that’s because it’s set largely in a Victorian Gothic boarding school, but there’s something about the atmosphere that Donohue evokes that makes it feel like a period drama.

The creepy, Gothic nature of the tale and the sense of disquiet that slowly envelopes you as you read on. This would be an absolutely perfect fireside read or for those times when you’re holed up in a holiday cottage and it’s pelting with rain outside. I read it in scorching heat on an outdoor balcony and it still gave me the chills! I think it’s because the characters are so well drawn — all arch and highbrow and pretentious and full of adolescent broodiness — and they’re playing a dangerous game that is beyond their ken. They’re typical teenagers who think they know it all, but they’re too naive to fully understand the consequences of their actions. And the setting — an elite Catholic boarding school for girls who are taught by nuns — lends a claustrophobic, almost Picnic at Hanging Rock edge to it.

The mystery at its heart. Trying to figure out what happened is what kept me turning the pages. And the structure of the novel, which swings between past and present in alternate chapters, gives an added sense of intrigue as the journalist — who has a childhood connection to the missing girl — discovers clues and makes connections as part of her investigation.

The notion that it’s almost impossible to tell who is telling the truth and who is not. This made me constantly question the reliability of Louisa, the first-person narrator at the boarding school, and the people around her, including her beautiful friend Victoria and the bohemian Mr Lavelle!

Of course, it’s not a perfect novel and I sometimes felt one step removed from the story because Louisa tells her version of events in quite a cold, detached manner. That adds to the creepy nature of The Temple House Vanishing, but it also means it’s difficult to emotionally engage with her.

And sometimes it feels a little heavy-handed in terms of the points Donohue is making about the differences in the class system (Louisa is from a working-class background and earns her place at the school via a scholarship).

But on the whole, these are minor issues. I thoroughly enjoyed this haunting tale that brims with cruelty and mystery and has a sinister undercurrent running throughout.

The Temple House Vanishing will be published in the UK on 20 February and in Australia on 3 March.

If you liked this, you might also like

The Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins: Atmospheric tale set in a boys’ reform school during the UK’s “big freeze” of 1962-63.