This month’s 6 Degrees of Separation, which begins with Phosphorescence by Julia Baird. has tied me up in knots. I had three attempts to form a chain; the first one got as far as link number four before it ran out of steam while the second one stalled at link number two. The chain I’ve finally ended up with isn’t as geographically diverse as past efforts but at least it is a chain!
I knew nothing about Baird’s book but a quick search tells me that the full title is Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder and Things That Sustain You When the World Goes Dark. And it’s a reflection on Baird’s encounters with phosphorescence, a luminescent phenomenon found in the natural world, and how she was able to cultivate her own ‘inner light’ in the face of suffering and illness. Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest, who is the host for #6degrees, loved the book but it’s not calling to me.
My first link picks up on the idea that phosphorescence is a particular type of light that makes objects appear to glow. In The Mirror and The Light, the final part of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, King Henry VIII is in no doubt about the radiance that shines forth from his regal person, blinding everyone with his brightness and giving him pre-eminence in the world. As Cromwell tells him: “Your Majesty is the only prince. The mirror and the light of other kings.”
We get a very different portrait of the King in the next book in my chain: Sovereign, one of the novels in the Shardlake series by C J Sansom. Here Henry is a huge bulk of a man with “red jowly face, fringe of reddish grey bead, a pursed little mouth under a commanding beak of a nose and small, deep,set eyes.” Not so much glowing as glowering you could say.
Although some plot elements of the Shardlake series are unbelievable, one of the things I never doubt is the authenticity of the historical period in which Sansom’s books are set. In his novel Dominion, he even includes an appendix of all his bibliographical resources for a tale giving an alternate history of post war Europe. In this version, Great Britain has failed to defeat the Nazis and has become one of Germany’s subject territories. The plot revolves around a geologist with knowledge that could help either Germany or America get the edge in the race for a nuclear weapon. To safeguard the secret, the geologist is hidden in a mental asylum.
I’m using incarceration as the link to my next book: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell. This was my first experience of her work and it remains one of my favourites. It’s a beautifully written and haunting story about a woman who has been unjustly placed in a Scottish mental hospital at a very young age, her wilful behaviour as a young girl interpreted as “madness” by her parents. What the novel reveals is that she was in fact suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is the central theme in Return Of The Soldier by Rebecca West. It’s her debut novel written when she was only 24 years old but shows a depth of maturity in her understanding of the mental fragility of a young man who comes home from the first world war physically intact but shell-shocked. He’s forgotten the past 15 years of his life. He’s forgotten that he’s married and he once had a son who died. All he remembers is a time when he was 21 and deeply in love with a woman called Margaret.
This soldier never gets any medical help for his condition, unlike the officers in the final book of this month’s chain. Pat Barker’s Booker-prize winning novel Regeneration was based on the true story of Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, a place were traumatised soldiers including the poets Siefgried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were patients of the psychiatrist W H R Rivers, a pioneer in treating posttraumatic stress disorder.
And so we come to the end of a chain that’s moved from a royal court to an asylum and a hospital. It’s all rather dark this month. I was hoping next month would be more uplifting but I’ve just spotted that the starting book is Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart which traces a young boy’s upbringing amid poverty and drugs in Glasgow. So don’t hold your breath for any light relief there!
If you fancy giving this a go, hop over to the blog of our host Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.