Six Degrees of Separation: from Shuggie Bain to …

Six Degrees of Separation is organised by Kate and the background can be found here.  Our starter book this month is Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart.

Shuggie Bain won the 2020 Booker prize.  I’m sure it was a worthy winner but the back cover quotes mean I won’t be reading it.  “… as intense and excruciating to read as any novel I have ever held in my hand..”  Not for me right now.  Probably never would have been.

But it won the Booker.  Thus I decided that my first link would be to the last Booker prize-winning book that I read, which led to some awkward squirming when I discovered that the most recent Booker I’ve read is The Life of Pi by Yann Martell which won in 2002.  This surely means I am now marked as devoid of all cultural and literary good taste.  (Several more from the last twenty years sit on my ‘to be read’ list.  I add them religiously and they seem extremely comfortable there, unlikely I fear, to move up any time soon.) 

I’m fairly sure Life of Pi has featured in an earlier chain but never mind.  In addition to its prize-winning status, it has the tenuous link to Shuggie Bain through its child protagonist struggling to survive, but in this case it is a child adrift in a boat with a man-eating tiger rather than in a run-down housing estate in Thatcher’s Glasgow.  To be fair, Pi is more a young man than a child when he finds himself in that predicament but his childhood is described in the novel: his family owned a zoo in the Indian city of Pondicherry.

Lee Langley wrote The House in Pondicherry (1995) which was the third of a loose trilogy of novels set in India.  I haven’t read it and I don’t plan to because I have read the middle book in the trilogy, Persistent Rumours (1992), which forms my second link.  This was a book club read and although it was rated highly by the majority of my fellow members if I recall, it didn’t work for me at all.  Much of the story centres around the Andaman Islands, off the coast of India, which are protected and remain home to its indigenous people, who I believe remain hostile to intrusion from outsiders.  They were certainly hostile in the course of this novel. 

Rumer Godden (I rather like that link!) is an author I enjoy very much who has also authored several novels set in India.  Leaving the open seas for calmer waters, The River (1946) is a coming-of-age novella describing that pause in Harriet’s life where she is caught between a sister who is no longer a playmate and a brother who is not yet old enough to fill that void.  I remember it as vivid with sensory description, bright, light and colourful.

We remain on a river with my next choice but we move from an Indian summer to an English winter.  Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River lifts us from the sun-filled vibrancy of an Indian riverbank to the dark mid-winter depths of the Thames.  The child in the tale is dead when brought into The Swan Inn, then she breathes into life, mute and unable to tell her story.  I planned to read this one last winter.  It’s a strong hopeful for December this year now.

Once Upon a River is set in 1887.  In 1889, Jerome K Jerome’s timeless classic was published:  Three Men in a Boat.  We’re back in a boat and we’re still on the Thames.  No child in the boat and no tiger mercifully, though there is Montmorency, the fox terrier who believes himself to be easily as ferocious as Richard Parker.  I’m confident that Jerome and his hapless companions would have passed The Swan Inn, had it existed.  Inns and public houses featured regularly in their watery jaunt. 

They also fished, with limited success, and my final link returns us to oceans rather than rivers, where fishing is a means of survival and not an idle passtime.   We also return to Shuggie’s Scotland: not to the deprived areas of Glasgow but to the harsh north-east and the Highlands.  The Silver Darlings (1941) by Neil Gunn tells of the struggles faced by families after the Clearances and their efforts to eke a livelihood from the seas, silver darlings being the herrings they caught from their boats.  I learned of this book from Fiction Fan and there may still be a plan for a review-along which I shall follow with interest.  (Or I may have missed it entirely.)  At the moment the book is waiting for me to begin and I hope I’ll reach it before too long.  The first review I read on Amazon noted with reference to The Silver Darlings: “This author would most definitely have won the Booker prize if it had been available during his writing years.”  An unanticipated link which left me insufferably smug.

This month we’ve sailed in a variety of boats from Glasgow to India and back to Scotland. We’ve travelled via oceans and rivers, sharing the voyage with a medley of child protagonists and a menagerie of animals.  I would never have guessed that’s where Shuggie Bain would take me, but I’m glad that my chain led me for the most part to brighter and more colourful climes.

49 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: from Shuggie Bain to …”

  1. What a marvellously diverse selection of watery reads Sandra, very apt for April ( the garden would just love some showers at present). I , too , have a serious problem with ” Booker Prize Winners”-I can’t remember ever having enjoyed one (not even Pi) and, sadly, I associate the them with rather more precious strata of reading tastes than mine. Wrong, no doubt, but I give them all a miss and I’ll give this one a miss too. I like Rumer Godden but have somehow missed The River, so that’s one for the future pile, and Diane Setterfield is on the said pile upstairs…………. ( just love the cover). Of the rest. one familiar of course and one I’ll definitely read- I’ve not read Neil Gunn before I’m sorry to admit, and this one seems a good place to start. ” Persistent Rumours”- what can I say? My choice as a book club offer. I just love it and it is one of the books I would like to have written had I been talented enough to have been an author.
    Enjoy the Easter sunshine. xxx

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    1. Yes, you were in my mind, Pat, as I voiced my thoughts on Persistent Rumours. Possibly the book on which we most differ! You have me thinking now about which books I would have liked to have written had I had the talent and the imagination… 🤔 xx

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  2. I just finished reading An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden March 12th. Somewhere in my long ago, I’ve read another of her books though the title escapes me momentarily. I will attempt acquiring The River. Otherwise, the 6 degrees do not tempt me at this time, although I enjoyed reading the list. I’ve been focused on reading books written before I was a teenager. In a recent shuffling of books, I came across some very old ones. Right now I’m reading Little Men by Louisa May Alcott written in 1907?

    The only exception to my plan of reading old books has been reading my book club’s selections. This month’s selection is A White Wind Blew by James Markert. It takes place in the city where I live (Louisville, KY, USA) and is about a tuberculosis sanitarium. Waverly Hills is sometimes called the most haunted place in the US.

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    1. Deb, I have An Episode of Sparrows here from the library! I’ll be reading it soon and we can compare notes. (Email will come, a great deal going on at the moment. Again…) x

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  3. An interesting chain – if something wins a prize it’s almost as though I have a physical block against reading it so I don’t imagine I’ve read many Booker winners in my time! I love ‘In this House of Brede’ by Rumer Godden, it’s in my pile of books to re-read.

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    1. There was a time when I felt I ‘ought’ to read the prize winners. I rarely finished them. Now I read what grabs me at the time. I’ve not read In the House of Brede but I do plan to read all her work eventually. I love her writing.

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  4. I’m going to have to give Once Upon a River another go. Alone among my reading group I didn’t enjoy it – didn’t even finish it. I think the fault must be mine. Life of Pi? Tick. Three Men in a Boat? Tick. Shuggie Bain? Tick. Rumer Godden? Tick. But not this one -yet. And the others – not at all. The Neil Gunn definitely appeals. A beautifully constructed chain as usual – you’re the one that got me into all this!

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    1. It is fun, isn’t it! And everyone’s chains are always so different. I’m confident I will enjoy Once Upon a River but (of course) it must wait now until winter returns and we won’t think about that just yet 😠 I’m not surprised that it didn’t work for you though and being a lone voice is just how I was with Persistent Rumours. All part of the stimulus of a good book club 😊

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  5. I really enjoy these interesting chains even though I know nothing about any of these books! I don’t think I have ever read a Booker Prize winner in my life other than the author J. M. Coetzee, but Disgrace not the book he won the prize for and Howard Jacobsen again not his winner, but an early book about travelling in Australia. I love how you and Margaret form the links, but I don’t think I shall be reading Shuggie Bain.

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  6. I’ve read quite a few Booker Prize winners, including Life of Pi, but a lot of them don’t appeal to me at all and I’m not planning to read Shuggie Bain. I’m pleased to see Three Men in a Boat in your chain as it’s one of my favourites!

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    1. I never expected to enjoy Three Men so much, Helen. I read it as it was short and I felt that I ought to have read it. I can totally understand why it remains a favourite with you.

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  7. Your comment about linking to Booker prize-winning novels made me laugh!
    There is still time to join in the review-along of The Silver Darlings as FictionFan has kindly postponed this (date to be advised) since I’m still waiting on my copy to arrive. My best guess is that the shipping container my copy is in has slipped into the ocean somewhere between the UK and Australia.

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    1. Katrina, thank you for this. Your review encourages me all the more to read it. And since the review-along has been postponed, I should be able to post my thoughts on it alongside those of a few other bloggers.

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  8. I’m celebrating your smugness along with you – how deliciously satisfying to find that remark about the Booker to end your chain! The Silver Darlings sounds like a must-read for me, since I am always drawn to Scottish tales these days. And I really must give the Setterfield a look some time. It’s been on my TBR since publication and I always like the sound of it when I am reminded of it.

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    1. The Silver Darlings does appeal to me and I’m looking forward to it. Setterfield will be for when the nights draw in again. For the moment I’ll enjoy that they’re drawing out. (Apologies for lack of reply to your email, Liz. It will arrive eventually x)

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  9. I was about to tell you, that I haven’t read any Booker Prize winners since Life of Pi either, but then I remembered Girl, Woman, Other, which was the joined winner in 2019 (and which I enjoyed very much). Anyway, I don’t mind whether I am cultured or literary as long as I’m enjoying the books I read. 😁 Once Upon a River used to be on my wish list (probably still is) but I listened to an Audible extract, which didn’t capture me at all. Of course, you can’t really judge from a 10 minutes extract. Three Men in a Boat, on the other hand, is one I definitely mean to read.

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  10. I agree totally regarding the Booker – I have found any winners I have tried to read very disappointing. Even the Penelope Fitzgerald one,’ Offshore’, didn’t do much for me, and although I could see why it was nominated, Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn (which didn’t win) is the only one of hers that I never re-read – it’s just too depressing.

    The Silver Darlings interests me very much, as I live in NE Scotland (Aberdeen actually has a very smart restaurant called The Silver Darling) and recently re-read the memoir of Christian Watt Marshall, ‘A Stranger on the Bars’. Marshall lived her entire life in Broadsea, a fishing community in Fraserburgh, and left school at 14 to become a herring gutter (the only other ‘careers’ open to working class girls were domestic service and factory work), The teams of women followed the boats as they in turn followed the fish around the coast and up to Shetland. Marshall’s memories were taken down verbatim by two university researchers, and I so enjoyed reading about life in Broadsea, and the long summers spent with hundreds of other women, working in terrible conditions, but with great camaraderie, in the fish sheds.

    I’ve read some other Rumer Godden but not this one, which I will now look out for. When my youngest daughter was small we read Tottie: the Story of a Dolls’ House and The Diddakoi together – they were some of her (and my) favourite books. I recently read Little Plum for a themed challenge, and enjoyed that too. Of her adult books, The Battle of the Villa Fiorita was well written but the central character annoyed me! I preferred The Greengage Summer.

    I’ve only just discovered your very nice blog – and i was interested to see how you arrived in Cornwall. My mother’s best friend from primary school (in south London) moved there when her own children were young, because her husband – a child of the London slums – had once been taken there on holiday and had seen his first seagull on that coast! They lived first at Foxhole, but then moved to Fowey. I spent very many happy summers there (as my mother worked) sitting in their garden overlooking the river, or wandering the paths and lanes. Good memories.

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    1. Hi Rosemary, lovely to ‘meet’ you! A Stranger on the Bars sounds a wonderful read. Fishing is a key industry here too of course. There would have been girls such as Marshall working here with the pilchard catch. Like you, I love to read about local life in the past. I am not far at all from Fowey as the crow flies. Using the ferry it takes no time at all to get there. Not that I’ve been there for a year now…

      In another coincidence, my sister has lived in NE Scotland for the past 15 years. She is just above Golspie – further north than you I think?

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  11. I am beginning to think there is an inverse correlation between prize books and my appreciation of them. So much fiction is totally ungrounded in a nasty universe peopled by ones I wouldn’t want next to me on the bus. Apocalyptic, nihilistic, haunted, the adjectives go on. I suspect because I am a woman of deep faith I will never connect with these books. Forgot all about Rumer Godden who I read in high school and loved.

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    1. I understand exactly, Elizabeth. It also seems that new books which don’t fall into the categories you’re describing are referred to as ‘feelgood’ and there is somehow a derogatory connotation attached. It’s unspoken but implied: the suggestion that these books are ‘less’ than the gritty reads.

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      1. I guess it is not all right to feel good. Unless it is with substances of course! Or with polyamory(I had never heard of this until this year. Apparently having lots of partners who all know about each other reduces jealousy. In what solar system I wonder.)Anyway I like a “long loving look at the real”(Walter Burghardt, SJ)That is what interests me. Especially the loving.

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  12. Thanks for the interesting reviews and the equally interesting chain of connections. I tried several times to get into ‘The Life of Pi’ but didn’t. Thanks for reminding me of Rumer Godden – I recall reading some of her books when I was in high school – perhaps I should ‘look her up’ again.

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  13. Well, I have been fascinated by all the comments about prizes, and in particular, the Booker prize winning novels.
    I seem to recall an article in the Daily Telegraph some years ago, where Amazon claimed, from it’s records of digital book reading, that a very low percentage of books bought were actually read to the end.I seem to remember 30 % as an average
    and the worst offenders were prize winners. Several very well known Booker prize winners were named as very low indeed. Of course, that doesn’t take into account all the readers of “proper” books. Crime novels had the highest rate of completion.

    Carry on enjoying reading.

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    1. Yes, I recall hearing something similar. It’s good to reach a point in one’s life when we feel free to indulge our reading tastes without feeling obliged to keep up with the pack x

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  14. I don’t think I’ve ever read a Booker winner Sandra! I do like your link about Rumer and rumours, especially since I haven’t read that particular Godden and it sounds like one to look forward to

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