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, England, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Robert Lukins, Setting, TBR40, University of Queensland Press

‘The Everlasting Sunday’ by Robert Lukins

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 215 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the author.

Melbourne writer Robert Lukins’ debut novel The Everlasting Sunday is set in a boys’ reform school during the UK’s “big freeze” of 1962-63.

This cold, atmospheric setting is only matched by the chilling goings on in the school, which culminate in a shocking denouement.

But this is not a thriller, psychological or otherwise (as you might expect), but a carefully composed study of friendship, alliances, survival, betrayal and trust.

Boys ‘found by trouble’

When the book opens we meet 17-year-old Radford as he arrives at Goodwin Manor, a home for boys who have been “found by trouble”.

We do not know what trouble has found Radford, but we do know he has been driven from London to the Shropshire-based manor by his uncle, who makes the return journey as soon as Radford has alighted from the vehicle. (The pretense is that he doesn’t want to get trapped by the looming snowstorm, but the reader does wonder whether Radford might have done something so ugly and abhorrent that his uncle can’t wait to be rid of him.)

From thereon in, alone in the world, the suicidal Radford adjusts to a strange new territory, reigned over by the kindly and eccentric “headmaster” Teddy, who has troubles of his own.

The school has no real rules or structured timetable; the boys are free to attend lessons on an adhoc basis if they wish (Radford enjoys learning about “the art of electronics” presided over by a long-haired instructor called Manny), or they may prefer to help with repairs — “the manor was in a persistent state of decay” — or go for long walks in the countryside. The only female presence is Lillian, the cook.

As he settles in, Radford is drawn to West, another boy, who takes him under his wing and the pair form an alliance.

But despite the manor being a refuge from the world, where the boys’ backgrounds are left at the door and no one dares reveal what it is that sent them to Goodwin in the first place, petty rivalries and infighting bubble up.

It all comes to the fore when Teddy gets the grand idea to stage a show — featuring “humour, music, sword-fighting, flights of rhetoric and abandon” — for the local villagers, splitting the boys into groups and giving each a role to play in the performance.

A sense of disquiet

The overall mood of The Everlasting Sunday is reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in that it is very much about a group of boys left to their own devices who end up turning on each other. It’s foreboding nature and sense of disquiet are palpable.

This is helped by the language that Lukins uses and the prose style he adopts; it feels like reading an old-fashioned novel, where beautiful descriptions are paramount and the sentences are often passive (there are a lot of things “coming”, for instance, such as “appeals came for dinner”; “six o’clock came”, “music came from the radio”) and objects are anthropomorphised (“the house was no pretender of authority”, “the dining room fire was in absurd spirits”).

It’s ripe in metaphor, too: a murmuration of starlings appears to represent Goodwin’s inhabitants, moving as one, by instinct, but just avoiding disaster by the merest of margins; and the aforementioned cold symbolises the emotional distance between them all.

This is an excellent novel, one that requires careful reading. It’s a story that appears gentle and delicate on the surface but hides a dark, brutal heart beating beneath. It’s subtle and complex and ever so quietly powerful.

Lisa of ANZLitLovers liked it too.

This is my 17th book for #TBR40. The author very kindly sent it to me in early 2018 after I tweeted about wanting to buy it in Australia, where it was published (and where I was holidaying at the time), but of not having enough room in my luggage to buy another book. I don’t normally accept review copies directly from authors, but on this occasion I acquiesced because I was so desperate to read it at the time. I’m not sure why it’s taken me a year to extract it from the pile…