This month’s Six Degrees has come around again already. Hosted every month by Kate at books are my favourite and best, we each begin with the same starter book and link a further six books to make a chain. Each book only needs to link to the one immediately before it though invariably my books link together in more ways than one. I never have any idea where my chain will lead me and am frequently surprised when I reach the end to find links and themes that weren’t apparent to me as I went along. This month is no exception and indeed, has turned my Six Degrees into something more.
We begin this month with The Poisonwood Bible (1998) by Barbara Kingsolver, which could be awarded a prize for being the book I have most not wanted to read despite recommendations.
There was plenty of discussion about it after last month’s Six Degrees. It seems to generate strong opinions in general and certainly in the case of my daughter and me. Ellie loves this book and has often encouraged me to read it. For whatever reason I have not been drawn to it although it ought to be a book I’d enjoy. After the discussion from last month’s thread I thought maybe I might just give it another try. Maybe. More recent input has convinced me even more that I really must give it a try. So much so that it’s now on order from the library. But until it arrives it stands out as “the book that Ellie failed to convince me on”.
This leads me into my first choice for this month’s chain. Flipping the situation regarding The Poisonwood Bible, I in turn, have never managed to convince Ellie of the joys of Jane Austen. She’s tried; it hasn’t worked. So my first choice for May is Persuasion (1817) by Jane Austen. I chose Persuasion simply because it’s my favourite of her novels.
Reflecting on the books and authors that we perhaps never get to try because of some undefined prejudice led me to my next choice. An author I have long been unreasonably prejudiced against is Ian McEwan. The reasons are lost to history: perhaps I was forever put off by the disturbing opening scene from the film of his novel, Enduring Love. But things have changed. I never got passed that first scene in Enduring Love but I did watch in its entirity the film of another of his books when it was first released, and earlier this year I finally read Atonement (2001): a story within a story created by Bryony, the younger of two sisters in a wealthy family. Through the lens of the story she writes, Bryony looks back over the course of her life and the disastrous results of a single lie. Not only did I love the book, I was delighted by McEwan’s writing. I’ll pick carefully from his catalogue – avoiding Enduring Love for a start – but I will certainly read more of his books. Better late than never.
From Atonement to Brooklyn (2009), by the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín. The connection initially was very simple: I loved both novels; I’ve re-watched the film versions of both very recently. As with Atonement and McEwan, Brooklyn was the first of Tóibín’s novels that I’d read and it got me hooked. Oh, and I’m also continuing the run of one-word titles. (In both cases, for what it’s worth, I enjoyed the books more than the films. Both films were good, but it’s hard to beat an outstanding book.)
But there are other parallels. The opening chapters of Atonement describe the stifling life of Bryony and her elder sister in the thirties. Brooklyn begins in the fifties and tells the story of Eilis, a young woman trapped in a claustrophobic life in Ireland whose elder sister helps her towards a new life in America. Brooklyn is beautifully written: filled with tight, lyrical, understated prose. A quiet novel filled with tiny treasures.
And it led me easily to another novel also by a renowned Irish author, also understated yet rich in poetic prose and also telling the story of a young woman’s flight from Ireland to America, leaving behind her older sisters. On Canaan’s Side (2011) by Sebastian Barry was my first encounter with Barry’s work and once again, I am hooked.
Where to from here? My thoughts were now firmly focused on family and on female lives in particular, and with Canaan and the Bible already featuring in two of the titles, it was a short leap to The Red Tent (1997) by Anita Diamant which offers a fictionalised life of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and sister of Joseph. The book tells the story of Dinah’s early life amongst the women of her family and her subsequent years in a far-flung country where she gains notoriety as a skilled midwife. And very neatly, this is a book which Ellie recommended to me and which we both enjoyed.
My chain has now moved from a difference of opinion between mother and daughter to consensus, and my final choice needed to keep us both on the same side but also link to the previous book with something more. Thus, I turn to Anita Shreve – sadly recently deceased. An obvious connection with the previous book is the authors’ shared forename and Anita Shreve is also an author that Ellie and I both enjoyed, often sharing her books between us. Without thinking too much about it, I chose Fortune’s Rocks (1999) as my final link in the chain. Then I noted that, in common with Brooklyn, Atonement and On Canaan’s Side, it too, is a story of a young woman and the impact of a single event on the rest of her life, in this instance her affair with a much-older, and married, man in a small American town at the close of the nineteenth century.
As I contemplate these choices I am struck by the recurring themes. Women feature throughout as mothers, daughters and sisters. There are flights to foreign climes and frequently the lives of these women have turned on a single far-reaching event. Only when I got to this point in putting my thoughts together did I remember that of course, The Poisonwood Bible is told by a woman and her daughters and is founded upon the momentous decision by her evangelist husband to move his family from their home in America to the Belgian Congo. A single event; a flight from one country to another.
Only Anne in Persuasion, I mused, appears not to fit entirely with my collection of female protagonists. Then I remembered the event which occurs before the novel opens upon which the novel rests: when Anne is persuaded against her romance with Captain Wentworth. And I also remembered the piece in the excellent series currently running on Sarah Emsley’s blog about Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, which discusses what the future may hold for Anne. She may not have travelled so very far in the course of the novel itself – although she doesn’t do badly for an Austen heroine – but the stage has been set for her to become perhaps the most widely travelled of Austen’s heroines, following the role model of Mrs Croft in her capacity as the wife of a naval officer. Persuasion has more than earned its place in the chain.
This month’s ‘Six Degrees’ has turned into what I more normally write under the title, ‘Reading Rambles’. I haven’t produced one of those for some time. And in the spirit of a reading ramble, I have to add one final thought in regard to this chain, having just read one of the many excellent reviews by Claire on Word by Word. In the course of the review she addresses ‘the quiet novel’ and refers to a list suggested by Jenni Ogden of quiet novels – among which is The Poisonwood Bible. Whether that particular book belongs in such a list remains to be seen – now that I have at long last bitten the bullet and ordered it from the library I can judge it properly for myself. Perhaps – as with Atonement and Ian McEwan – I shall overcome years of unreasonable prejudice! In any event, I like how it brings my ramblings here full circle. And I shall certainly have a view on whether it fits the brief of a quiet novel, for I’ve been reading a number of them of late. Jenni Ogden’s article on the quiet novel has left me with plenty to think about. She has this to say:
“… I am acutely aware of the rhetoric around what makes a successful commercial novel. Don’t wander from the main story, tension on every page, get that inciting incident in early because if you don’t most readers will give up before they get to the end of the first chapter. I agree that suspense is important, even essential, in good stories, but suspense can be quiet and even peaceful. All it needs is a question in the reader’s mind; how is this going to get resolved? Quiet books can and often do have loud emotions, big questions, be set in terrible situations—war zones, refugee camps, a blizzard, a psychiatric hospital, a cancer ward, a dysfunctional family—and have periods of dramatic action, but they are woven through with contemplation and evocative descriptions of place and thoughts and connection.”
I can’t yet say whether The Poisonwood Bible is “woven through with contemplation and evocative descriptions of place and thoughts and connection”. But I can certainly say that it applies to all six books that have sprung from it in my chain. I think that must make me a big fan of the quiet novel.
Next month’s starting book is by Malcolm Gladwell and is called The Tipping Point. I have never heard of it. Should be interesting …