This month’s chain begins with a Gothic tale from Henry James that coincidentally was the final link in my chain last month. It’s a slim narrative in which a young governess begins a new position at an isolated country manor. It doesn’t take long before she begins to see the ghosts of two former servants and comes to believe they are evil creatures intent on possessing the souls of the two children in her care.
Or are they?
James cleverly creates doubts about the accuracy of her version. It could be that the “ghosts” are in fact hallucinations; the products of a delusional mind.
We’re in the realm here of unreliable narrators. So for my first link let’s go to a book featuring another single woman whose account of events can’t be entirely trusted.
Gillespie and I by Jane Harris features Harriet Baxter, a 79-year spinster who becomes friends with a talented artist and his family. She finds herself in the midst of a tragedy and a notorious court case after one of the daughters begins behaving in a strange way. But there’s more to Harriet’s desire to “set the record straight” than meets the eye.
Jane Harris set her story against the background of the International Exhibition in Glasgow in 1888, intended to celebrate the city’s scientific, industrial and artistic achievements.
An exhibition on a somewhat smaller scale is featured in Washington Black by Esi Edugyan, a multi-layered novel in which a plantation slave travels the world, trying to evade capture. Along the way he becomes an accomplished, though unacknowledged, marine scientist who has a vision of building the first large-scale tanks for public exhibition, at London Zoo.
Washington Black was chosen by my book club and is a great example of how these reading groups can introduce you to books that you might otherwise have ignored.
The club was how I discovered Little by Edward Carey which is a terrifically atmospheric fictionalised account of the life of Madame Tussaud. Carey doesn’t hold back from showing the rat-strewn palace corridors and flea-infested streets of pre-Revolutionary Paris in which Tussaud hones her wax modelling skills.
I know fleas are not the most pleasant subject to read about but you’ll have to be patient because they play a key role in my next book.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell takes us into the home of William Shakespeare and the pressure placed upon his marriage by the death of his young son. Though history doesn’t record how the child dies, O’Farrell imagines it is the result of bubonic plague which, as we know, was mainly spread by infected fleas.
About halfway through this brilliant novel, there’s an extraordinary 10-page section in which O’Farrell traces how an infected flea picked up by a cabin boy in Alexandria ends up in Shakespeare’s home in Stratford.
Hamnet re-imagines an episode in Shakespeare’s life and how this connected to one of his most famous plays, Hamnet. For a re-imagination of a different play, The Tempest, we have Margaret Atwood to thank.
Hag-seed is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare initiative masterminded by Vintage in which Shakespeare’s works are retold by acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today. Atwood creates her Prospero character from a jaded theatre director who ends up leading a drama programme in a male prison when he falls victim to the machinations of his protegé.
Some of the best scenes in that book take place when the cast (all prisoners) meet to discuss the play before rehearsals begin. They have an entirely fresh take on the nature of Caliban and Ariel.
The male prisoners who feature in The Prison Book Club have a similarly unfiltered view of the works of literature they meet to discuss according to Ann Walmsley, a volunteer with the programme. It sounded interesting but but Walmsley’s style of writing made for an irritating experience so I gave up on it, without ever getting to discover those views for myself.
So that’s my #6Degrees; moving from a dark novel of a disturbed mind to a non-fiction account of a prison-based literacy programme. It was only when I got to the end that I realised there was a connection back to the title of our starting book.
Back in the mid 19th century, prison guards began to be called “screws” . The slang term may have been linked to the thumbscrews used by jailers in ancient times to press prisoners into confessing. The turn of the screw was a way to make the ordeal even more arduous. I wonder if Henry James was aware of that connotation when he came up with his title?