Six degrees of separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘The Snow Child’ to ‘Border Districts: A Fiction’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeI missed November’s Six Degrees of Separation but have remembered to do it this time around thanks to a calendar reminder! Honestly, where has the year gone?

This monthly meme is hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. It works like this: Kate suggests a starter book and the idea is to then create a chain of six more books, linking each one as you see fit.

Here are the six books I have chosen for my chain. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey (2012)

Partly based on a Russian fairytale, this novel is about a childless couple who build a snowman designed to look like a little girl, which later comes to life but is only ever seen living in the forest in winter. It’s too slight a tale to sustain 400-plus pages, but as a story about heartbreak and hope with a strong fairy-tale element to it, it is a lovely and evocative read.

‘Touch’ by Alexi Zentner (2011)

Another book set in an icy wilderness with a hint of the fairytale about it is Alexi Zentner’s debut novel, which was longlisted for the Giller Prize in 2011. Set in  Canada in the early 20th century, it’s an atmospheric tale ripe with adventure, hardship, tragedy, murder, romance — and a teensy bit of cannibalism. Now you’re intrigued, right?

‘The Girl with Glass Feet’ by Ali Shaw (2009)

Sticking with the fairytale theme, this debut novel is set on a fictional wind-swept island, where strange and unusual events take place. When the central character’s feet turn into glass, she returns to the island to seek a cure. She meets an enigmatic young man, with whom she falls in love, but with the glass slowly taking over her body, it becomes a race against time to find a cure for her condition.

‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’ by Richard Flanagan (2020)

Here’s another story about body parts doing weird things. In this novel by Booker Prize-winning novelist Richard Flanagan, people begin to “lose” body parts. At first, it might just be a finger that turns invisible, but later it might become a knee or an entire limb. This is a metaphor for emotional loss (the story is largely about how we deal with aging parents), but it also acts as a metaphor for environmental loss as there is a twin storyline about the hunt for the rare and elusive night parrot, which is on the verge of extinction.

‘The Memory Police’ by Yoko Ogawa (1994)

Lots of things disappear in Yoko Ogawa’s dystopian tale. It’s set on an island, where residents are collectively forced to forget certain objects, including ribbons, roses, maps and calendars as if they never existed. This forgetting is enforced by a mysterious and draconian force called the Memory Police. Those who disobey, or who are unable to forget, are rounded up and “disappeared”.

‘The Wilderness’ by Samantha Harvey (2009)

Forgetting things is at the hub of this deeply affecting and brilliantly structured novel which is about Jake, a 60-something widower, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Through a clever repetition of motifs and family tales, the reader begins to see how Jake’s memories are slowly deteriorating as his disease takes hold. Stories shift and change and turn into something else, blurring the line between what is real and what is not.

Border Districts

‘Border Districts: A Fiction’ by Gerald Murnane (2018)

This novel is labeled “A Fiction” probably because it doesn’t comply with the normal conventions of the literary novel and blurs the line between fiction, non-fiction and reportage. Written stream-of-consciousness style and employing some of the devices of meta-fiction, Border Districts is an “experimental” novel, one that explores memory or, more accurately, the landscape of the mind.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a fairytale in the snow to an experimental novel that explores memory, via novels that focus on fairytales, loss and forgetting.

Have you read any of these books? 

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

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2009

Books-of-the-yearAs we get ready to toast the turn of the decade, it’s time for me to name the best novels I read in 2009. All of them garnered five-stars when I reviewed them over the course of the year.

My top 10 fiction reads are as follows (in alphabetical order by book title):

‘A Far Cry From Kensington’ by Muriel Spark (first published in 1988)
To say I was utterly charmed by it would probably be an understatement. This is a deliciously enjoyable story that is so perfectly constructed it’s almost impossible to find fault with it — on any level. The prose is simple, the characters believable and the plot expertly drawn, so that you’re never quite sure where it’s going to take you and then feel overwhelmingly satisfied when you arrive at its destination.

‘A Woman of My Age’ by Nina Bawden (1967)
A Woman of My Age is definitely a product of its times, when women married young and were expected to stay at home and raise a family. But in Elizabeth Jourdelay, Bawden has created a headstrong and independent character who rails against society’s ‘rules’ and constraints.

‘Eight Months on Ghazzah Street’ by Hilary Mantel (1998)
Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is a psychological thriller of the finest order. It reads like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but because Frances is an intelligent worldly wise woman, you know that her fears aren’t fickle. Mantel builds up the tension slowly but surely, revealing Frances’ increasing sense of foreboding through diary entries that are interspersed throughout the third-person narrative.

‘Flowers for Algernon’ by Daniel Keyes (1966)
Daniel Key’s Flowers for Algernon is a very special science fiction novel that reveals much about the human condition and the ways in which we relate to others. It touches on many issues including the way we treat the mentally handicapped, the ethics of scientific experimentation on animals (and humans), our desire to be ‘normal’, the differences between IQ and EQ, and the ways in which our childhood experiences impact on our adult lives.

‘The Merry-Go-Round-in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow (1965)
Essentially the book, which was first written in 1965, is a coming-of-age story. It is set in Geraldton, Western Australia, where the author, who now lives in England, was born. Although my Penguin Modern Classics edition claims it is “not a self portrait” there’s no mistaking The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea‘s semi-autobiographical roots. It has a truly authentic feel for the time and the place, and it’s easy to find yourself entirely immersed in this world, smelling the eucalyptus wafting on the breeze and feeling the hot sand of the beach between your toes.

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell (1949)
The thing that struck me most was how much of this futuristic novel was deeply rooted in the time in which Orwell wrote it. There are echoes of war-torn London throughout this book […] Obviously there’s a lot of stuff that feels incredibly prescient today: the so-called War on Terror and its resultant erosion of civil liberties; the increasing reliance on media spin, particularly by government agencies; and the ever-present CCTV surveillance, especially here in the UK.

‘Once & Then’ by Morris Gleitzman (2009)
Once & Then is a powerful story about the strength and resilience of the human spirit. It’s about courage and hope, and surviving against the odds. And while it tackles one of the darkest times in 20th century history, Gleitzman does it sensitively without losing any of the important detail. There’s plenty of death here, and
cruelty, but it’s not sensationalist or gratuitous. ‘This story is my imagination trying to grasp the unimaginable,’ he writes in his afterward. I think he’s achieved it.

‘Pretty Monsters’ by Kelly Link (2009)
There are nine stories here, some of which have been published elsewhere in the past, and each one presents an intoxicating, hugely original world […] I’ve never read such a wacky collection of stories that gripped me, held me in their sway and slightly altered my perception of the universe when I came to each stunning conclusion. Where has Kelly Link been hiding all my life? She’s bloody brilliant.

‘The Shiralee’ by D’Arcy Niland (1955)
The book has a big heart. It’s funny in places and sad in others. It’s occasionally tender, occasionally brutal. It’s humble, knowing and wise. Sometimes it makes you feel ashamed to be human, at other times it makes you feel proud. And, above all, it makes you wish every book was written like this: forthright, absorbing and genuinely moving.

‘The Wilderness’ by Samantha Harvey (2009)
Samantha Harvey is an exquisite writer and a skilled novelist. The Wilderness is so accomplished on so many different levels — stylistically, creatively, intellectually — that it seems astonishing that this is her first novel.”

What books did you most enjoy this year?

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Samantha Harvey, Setting

‘The Wilderness’ by Samantha Harvey


Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 336 pages; 2009.

Samantha Harvey is an exquisite writer and a skilled novelist. The Wilderness is so accomplished on so many different levels — stylistically, creatively, intellectually — that it seems astonishing that this is her first novel. What is not astonishing is that it has been shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction. And if I might be so bold as to make an outlandish claim based on nothing more than instinct, I rather suspect it might win. Or at least I hope it does.

While not much seems to happen in the book, it is an utterly engrossing story, one that is shocking and melancholic and life-affirming by turn. It has the atmosphere of a spellbinding family drama, with chinks of humour shining through, that someone like Anne Tyler might write. Indeed, it feels like an American book to me, rather than one set in England,although it features some wonderful references to London and the desolate moors of Lincolnshire.

I found it so affecting that I have spent the best part of four days wrestling with this review, and I don’t think I will come anywhere close to explaining what it is about this novel that is so brilliant. Bearing that in mind, let me tell you a little of its content.

The third-person narrative focuses on Jake, a 60-something widower, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. We learn that his wife, Helen, 10 years his junior, died from a stroke at the age of 53 and that he is now living with another woman, Eleanor, who is taking care of him. (He occasionally refers to her as “that other woman” because he forgets her name; indeed he often forgets that Helen is dead.) But we never fully learn how that arrangement fell into place, only that the two have known each other for a very long time, have a shared history and that Eleanor waited 30 years to be with him.

Jake has an adult son, Henry, who is in prison, and a daughter, Alice, although it’s never quite clear as to whether she is still alive or died as a youngster.

In fact, this inability for the reader to really know the truth is one of the most interesting aspects of Harvey’s novel. Through a clever repetition of motifs — a yellow dress, a cherry tree, the sound of gun shots, mint juleps, love letters, monkeys, the scars on his grandfather’s face and a bible bound in human skin — and family tales — the story of a missing “e”, which parts of a Battenberg cake you should eat first, a 24-hour dalliance with a young woman, an inheritance that goes missing — the reader begins to see how Jake’s memories are slowly deteriorating as his disease takes hold. Stories shift and change and turn into something else, blurring the line between what is real and what is not.

Suddenly nothing he says or does can be trusted, as if it used to be quite an informal kind of illness and now it becomes official. The timeline is a mass of crossings out and corrections. He feels to be the supremely unconfident author of his own life. Question marks appear against words, then he deletes the question marks, thinking that if he doesn’t question the truth there is no question about it. It is only him, as the woman says, only him who is confusing things.

But this book is as much about architecture as it is about Alzheimer’s. Indeed, Jake, a former architect, refers to the amnesia of his profession on several occasions, and it soon becomes clear that very few of his buildings have been memorable. Ironically, his crowning achievement is a prison extension — a utilitarian monstrosity that caused a public outcry — that now houses his wayward son.

And there’s a bit of politics thrown in for good measure in the form of the Six-Day War of 1967 between Israel and the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, one of the crystallising moment’s in Jake’s life. He is so affected by the conflict he sets up a pro-Israel lobby group, because as an architect,he has had his own fights over land. But his mother, Sara, an Austrian Jew, does not approve. “You have foolish ideas,” she tells him, before later adding: “These groups, what good arethey? You must leave it alone and save the energy for your  family.”

And it is family — Helen, Henry, Alice — which forms the epicentre of his life, and as the memories of them slowly fade and become lost in a fug of confusion the life-affirming nature of this book really hits home: without our memories we have no history, no sense of self, nothing, in fact, to hold onto or to make sense of the world around us.

The Wilderness is an outstanding novel on so many different levels everything I read in its aftermath will seem pithy by comparison. I don’t often re-read books, but I have a feeling that this one may just become an old friend. Indeed it invites a second and third reading to really come to grips with the detail of everything within.