6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘The Bass Rock’ to ‘Breath’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeI honestly can’t believe it is June already. I know it’s a cliché to say it, but where does the time go?

Anyway, 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).

This month, the starting book is…

The Bass Rock’ by Evie Wyld (2020)
I haven’t read this novel, which won this year’s Stella Prize, though it has been lingering in my digital TBR for quite some time. I know that an element of it is historical fiction set in Scotland, which brings to mind another book with a similar background…

Elemental by Amanda Curtin

‘Elemental’ by Amanda Curtin (2016)
In this richly evocative novel by Western Australian writer Amanda Curtin, we meet Meggie Tulloch, a woman born in the late 19th century to a traditional fishing family on the north-east coast of Scotland. Spanning 1891 to 1932, Maggie shares her life story, including her time as a “herring girl” and her later marriage and emigration to the other side of the world. This brings to mind…

The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

‘The Other Side of the World’ by Stephanie Bishop (2015)
This is a deeply melancholy novel about emigration, marriage and motherhood. It tells the story of an English woman who, together with her Anglo-Indian husband and two young children, becomes a “£10 POM” and emigrates in the early 1960s to begin a new life in Western Australia. But things don’t go according to plan and Charlotte struggles with the homesickness and dislocation that every emigrant feels. This brings to mind…

Brooklyn’ by Colm Tóibín (2009)
One of my favourite novels, Brooklyn captures the emigrant’s sense of dislocation so beautifully it made me cry. Set in the 1950s, it tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irishwoman from Co. Wexford, who leaves behind her mother and devoted older sister, Rose, to immigrate to Brooklyn, USA, in search of a better life. This brings to mind…

‘Road Ends’ by Mary Lawson (2014)
Set in Canada in the 1960s, this book charts the slow disintegration of a large, dysfunctional family when the eldest daughter decides to leave home to pursue her dream of living abroad. There are three different threads to the tale, but the most evocative one (in my opinion) is that of Megan Cartwright, who moves to London and finds her dream job (after many ups and downs) running a small boutique hotel. This brings to mind…

‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa (2011)
In this strangely beautiful Japanese novel, we meet 17-year-old Mari, who helps run a hotel on the coast with her overbearing mother. Late one evening two hotel guests, a screaming woman and her male companion, are ejected from the premises. Later, Mari, who is alarmingly young and naive, strikes up a friendship with the man — more than 50 years her senior — that morphs into a rather deviant sexual affair. This brings to mind…

‘Breath’ by Tim Winton (2009)
This gentle, occasionally heart-breaking, story is about a boy growing up on the Western Australian coast in the 1970s. Bruce Pike, better known as “Pikelet”, is a bit of an outsider, but he develops a bond with “Loonie”, the town’s wild child, and everything changes. The pair fall in with an older surfer, Sando, who challenges them to try surfing in often dangerous and remote locations, but it’s the clandestine (and deviant sexual) relationship that Pikelet has with the Sando’s American girlfriend that takes him into deadly territory…

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about three generations of women in Scotland to a tale of teenage boys growing up in Western Australia, via four stories about emigration and a Japanese novel focused on a strange romance between an older man and a teenage girl.

Have you read any of these books? 

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

Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Japan, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Vintage, Yoko Ogawa

‘The Memory Police’ by Yoko Ogawa

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 274 pages; 2020. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa is a brilliant mix of The Diary of Anne Frank meets George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. There are echoes of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and it also shares similar themes with Richard Flanagan’s latest novel, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, too.

And yet for all that, this is a wholly original dystopian novel like no other.

As Madeleine Thein writes in her review, published in the Guardian in 2019, it is a “rare work of patient and courageous vision” and one that “can be experienced as fable or allegory, warning and illumination”.

Written in deceptively simple yet hypnotic prose, there’s a dream-like quality to the text, yet the subject matter is quite nightmarish.

Isolated island life

Set on an island in a vaguely familiar dystopian future, 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 story is narrated by an unnamed writer who is working on a novel about a woman who takes typing lessons in a disused lighthouse. Excerpts of this novel (which are published within the novel) show the power of books and writing to preserve the past unless, of course, they are made to disappear, too.

The book’s editor, the kindly R, is one of those unfortunate people who can’t forget what he is supposed to forget and he’s running the risk of being forcefully made to disappear. The writer makes a bold decision to take him away from his pregnant wife and hide him in her house in a makeshift room hidden under the floorboards. She enlists one of her most trusted friends, an elderly man she’s known since childhood, to help her set up the room so it’s functional and soundproof, and together they smuggle R into hiding.

It’s an astonishing risk to take. For R, living in such cramped conditions, with no access to daylight and separated from his wife and child, there is little to occupy his time — except to edit the book.

It was better for him, too, to have work to do. The healthiest way of living in the secret room was to wake in the morning thinking about the things that had to be done during the day; then, at night before going to bed, to check that everything had been accomplished, whether satisfactorily or not. Moreover, the morning agenda needed to be as concrete as possible, and the tasks ideally involved some sort of reward, no matter how small. Finally, the day’s worked needed to tire him out in both body and spirit.

Jeopardy comes in many forms over the course of the novel. R’s hiding place is under constant threat of exposure, while a clandestine love affair increases the danger. Rare objects, including a harmonica, are discovered in the writer’s home and while she does not understand their use, it’s clear that just having them in her possession puts her in peril. Meanwhile, more and more objects are consigned to history by the Memory Police, including books and libraries, seemingly at random, creating chaos, confusion and instability.

Echoes of the past

First published in the author’s native Japan in 1994, The Memory Police was translated into English last year and was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize.

It’s a brilliant treatise on totalitarianism, loss and control, about the ways in which humans often obliterate all that is good in the world, and the resilience of ordinary people to survive against the odds. It can also be seen as an allegory on growing old and dying. Indeed, there’s a lot to unpick in this relatively short but powerful novel, which is told with grace and flair.

Reading this book, I couldn’t help but recognise elements of human history we would probably rather forget — the constant hunt for food reminiscent of the North Korean regime; the rounding up of people for being different has echoes of Nazi Germany; the constant rewriting of history is very Orwellian; even R’s new life in hiding could be seen as a bit like living in Covid-19 lockdown — so perhaps the book’s overriding message is the importance to remember bad things in order not to repeat them in the future.

I definitely want to read this one again. Expect to see this on my top 10 at the end of the year. Yes, it really is that good.

This is my 4th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year, and it is my 5th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I also read this as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 14. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March 2021, here

Author, Bernard MacLaverty, Birgit Vanderbeke, Book lists, Cynan Jones, Damon Galgut, J.L. Carr, Jay Mcinerney, Karin Fossum, Kate Jennings, Magnus Mills, Marguerite Duras, Mary Costello, Nell Leyshon, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Sonya Hartnett, Tarjei Vesaas, Tommy Wieringa, Yoko Ogawa

17 intriguing novellas you can read in a day (or an afternoon)

If you are looking for a quick read during “lockdown”, something that will absorb you and take you out of yourself for a few hours, you can’t go past a short novel.

I have a penchant for books with fewer than 200 pages and thought I’d list some of my favourites here.

All these books can easily be read in the space of a day — or an afternoon. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. To see a full review, simply click the book title.

Cover image of A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980)
Escape to a long-lost English summer in this subtle tale of a young soldier who returns from the Great War and undertakes a special project: to uncover a medieval mural inside a church.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)
Follow all the joy and heartaches in the life of a passive, too-afraid-to-grab-life-by-the-horns Irishwoman from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984)
Immerse yourself in this evocative and sensual story set in 1930s Indo-China which revolves around a teenage girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior.

Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum (2011)
Discover a crime book with a difference in this fast-paced story about three men who go on a weekend trip to an isolated cabin by a lake — but only two of them return.

Small Circle of Beings

Small Circle of Beings by Damon Galgut (2005)
Learn about a stubborn South African mother who fails to take her young son to hospital when he falls dangerously ill — will you condemn her or feel empathy?

Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett (2009)
Spend time in the head of a scared, lonely schoolboy who convinces himself that the three children who move in across the road are the same children whose recent disappearance now fills the TV news.

Snake by Kate Jennings

Snake by Kate Jennings (2001)
Meet Rex and Irene, a married couple living on an outback farm in post-war Australia, who hate each other but must muddle on regardless.

The Long Dry by Cynan Jones (2014) 
Accompany Gareth as he spends an entire day trudging the hills of his Welsh farm looking for a missing cow —  and along the way learn about his hopes, his dreams and the love he has for his wife and children.

Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (1983)
Get caught up in an affair between a Catholic man and an older Protestant woman during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland — and be prepared for a heart-rending morally challenging ride.

Explorers of the new century by

Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills (2006)
Strap yourself in for a totally bonkers competition between two groups of explorers competing to reach the “furtherest point from civilisation” — expect many laughs and quite a lot of WTF moments!

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (2012)
Take 15-year-old sharp-tongued Mary by the hand in “this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty” and go with her as she is forced to work at the local vicarage as the live-in help.

Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney (1985)
Experience life as an out-of-work fact-checker in 1980s New York — go to all the parties, take all the drugs, but don’t let on your glamourous wife has left you, and do your best not to fall apart at the seams.

You by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (2010)
Meet a funny, feisty 10-year-old narrator caught between two families —  her mother and her new boyfriend; and her father and his new wife — in 1980s Dublin.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2010)
Be charmed by the relationship between a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1966)
Succumb to the mystery of an intense friendship between two 11-year-old girls, one of whom disappears in the “ice palace”, a frozen waterfall, in rural Norway.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (1990)
Sit around the dinner table with a German family awaiting the arrival of the patriarch so that they can all celebrate his promotion with mussels and wine — but why is he so late?

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (2019)
Travel abroad with two young women from the Netherlands, on holiday in Morocco, who agree to help smuggle a young man across the border into Europe — with deadly repercussions.

Have you read any of these? Do you have a favourite novella? Or can you recommend a few that I haven’t put on my list?

10 books, Book lists

10 of my favourite books by women writers in translation

August is Women in Translation Month, an initiative designed to encourage people to read books by women in translation, which is now in its sixth year.

This year it is slightly different. Blogger Meytal Radzinski, who set up the first #WITMonth in 2014, is hoping to build a new canon by curating a list of the 100 best books by women writers in translation. She’s invited readers, bloggers, book fans, publishers, translators, editors and writers — in fact, anyone who loves books — to nominate up to 10 titles by women who write in any language other than English. (You can find out more about that here.)

I thought I would contribute to this exercise with the following list. Note that some of these titles have previously appeared in a list of 5 books for Women in Translation month that I compiled in 2016, so apologies for any duplication. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

The_lover

‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras
Translated from the French by Barbara Bray
An evocative, melancholy novel — set in Indochina in 1929 — about a young French girl’s affair with a South Vietnamese man 12 years her senior.


‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux
Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie
Deeply affecting and brutally honest memoir about the author’s mother and the sometimes-strained relationship they shared.

‘Bad Intentions’ by Karin Fossum
Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund
A “whydunnit” that looks at what happens when three young men go on a weekend camping trip but only two of them come back.

‘This Place Holds No Fear’ by Monika Held
Translated from the German by Anne Posten
A touching and compelling portrait of a marriage and an exploration of what happens to Holocaust survivors long after the war is over.

Soviet Milk
‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena
Translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis
A powerful novella that explores motherhood, the freedom to pursue your calling and life under Soviet rule.

The Party Wall
The Party Wall’ by Catherine Leroux
Translated from the French by Lazer Lederhendler
Shortlisted for the 2016 Giller Prize, this is a complex, multi-layered and exhilarating story about identity and self-discovery, with a strong focus on kinship, biological parentage and the ties that bind siblings together.


‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
A dark revenge tale about a teacher who takes the law into her own hands and dishes out cruel and unusual punishment to the students she thinks killed her daughter.


‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
Charming and heartfelt story about a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes.

beside the sea

‘Beside the Sea’ by Véronique Olmi
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter
Profoundly moving novella about a single mother with no money who takes her young children to the seaside for a short vacation — with tragic consequences.


‘The Mussel Feast’ by Birgit Vanderbeke
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
A deceptively simple story — about a delayed celebratory dinner — that morphs into a complex portrait of a tyrannical man with an unrealistic expectation of family life but is actually a metaphor for East and West Germany.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend other translations by women writers? Are you taking part in #WITMonth? Which 10 books would you recommend?

5 books, Book lists

5 books for Women in Translation month

5-books-200pixAugust is Women in Translation Month, an initiative designed to encourage people to read books by women in translation.

Why? Mainly to redress the balance: figures suggest that just 30 per cent of literature in translation is written by women. According to blogger Meytal Radzinski, who set up the first #WITMonth in 2014, the situation has changed little over the past three years — and now it’s time to change it. (This post gives you all the stats you need to know.)

It’s great to see that this year’s #WITMonth seems to have really caught the imagination of readers, publishers and booksellers everywhere. All the major bookshops here in London — Waterstones, Folyes, the LRB et al — have got behind it. So, too, has the Reading Agency.

I’m a keen reader of translated fiction (you can see everything I’ve reviewed here), so thought I would highlight some of my favourites by women writers. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

The_lover

‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras
Translated from the French by Barbara Bray

This is an evocative and sensual novel about a young girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior, which is supposedly based on the author’s own life. Set in Indochina in 1929, it is compelling in the way it explores sexual taboos and the tensions between the French colonists and the South Vietnamese, and the writing has a beautiful melancholic tinge to it. It’s not a story that is easily forgotten…

Bad intentions

‘Bad Intentions’ by Karin Fossum
Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund

Three young men go on a weekend trip to an isolated cabin by a lake, but only two of them return to shore. It’s not so much what happens, but why that makes this novella such a terrifically good read, one that explores culpability, peer group pressure, betrayal and paranoia. It’s the ninth volume of Fossum’s Inspector Sejer series, but it works as a stand-alone book. I’ve read quite a few of Fossum’s crime novels — and I’ve yet to come across a bad one.

This-place-holds-no-fear

‘This Place Holds No Fear’ by Monika Held
Translated from the German by Anne Posten

One of my favourite reads from 2015, this extraordinarily beautiful novel is both a touching portrait of a marriage and an exploration of what happens to Holocaust survivors long after the war is over. How do such people damaged by the unfathomable horror and trauma of the Nazi death camps get on with their lives? Based on a true story — the author interviewed and spent time with Auschwitz survivors — it feels incredibly authentic. It’s certainly powerful and compelling.

Hotel Iris

‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

This is another haunting tale about the relationship between a younger woman and an older man. But Ogawa’s story is more dark and twisted than Duras’ (above). The affair puts the woman in danger because the man is a sexual deviant and prone to unexpected rages and no one knows that the pair have hooked up. This tension-filled story is written in such a quietly understated and restrained style it’s not until you finish it that you realise how strange and disturbing it really is…

beside the sea

‘Beside the Sea’ by Véronique Olmi
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

This profoundly moving novella looks at what happens when a mother feels she can’t cope with her children. She takes them on a holiday to the seaside but doesn’t have the money to do much other than pay for the squalid accommodation that she’s arranged for them. The kind of story that could have been lifted from the news headlines, this has an earth-shattering ending that will make you think twice about judging women who commit infanticide.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend other translations by women writers? Are you taking part in #WITMonth?