BookerTalk

Six Degrees From Prison To The Stage

It’s time to play Six Degrees once more, a monthly event where the idea is to begin with book and link it to six other books to form a chain. This month we get to use a wild card, starting the chain using the book with which a previous chain ended.

I’m choosing to pick up where last month’s chain came to an end: The Prison Book Club by Ann Walmsley, an account of reading groups established for inmates in two Canadian correctional facilities.

I didn’t manage to finish the book because I found the writing style too dull so I never got to find out whether any of the members of these groups attempted to escape like the main character in Papillon by Henri Charrière. It’s an autobiographical novel which relates Charrière’s wrongful conviction for murder in 1931. He was sentenced to a life of hard labour at a penal colony which became known as Devil’s Island. He escaped after 14 years and settled in Venezuela.  

From a prison on an island, we move to a more unusual place of incarceration. In A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles an aristocrat falls foul of the Bolsheviks. They sentence Count Alexander Rostov to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. It might not sound like much of a punishment since the Count is free to use the dining room and the barbers but his room is a cramped space in the attic.

The family in Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodroziç would probably consider the Count’s “prison” a luxury compared to the one room apartment they have to share. They’re innocent victims of the Croatian war of independence, displaced from their homes by the conflict in which their father has gone to join the patriots. For three years they live in the former Political School, known locally as Hotel Tito in homage to Josip Tito, former president of Yugoslavia. 

The conflict in this part of the Balkans forms the background for The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien, a book whose title refers to a tableau of 11,000 empty chairs created in Sarajevo to commemorate victims of the siege by Bosnian Serbs in early 1990s. In the novel, the man who turns up in a quiet Irish village where he sets himself up as a holistic therapist, turns out to be a fugitive war criminal. O’Brien’s character is based on the real life war crime fugitive Radovan Karadzic, known as the beast of Bolsova.

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson also has a passing reference to a notorious figure. Jimmy Saville was once a mega name on the British entertainment scene but is now more associated with a major police inquiry into child abuse over a period of decades. Though Saville doesn’t directly feature in the novel, it’s partly set in the seaside town of Scarborough, Yorkshire where he had a home, and he is a shadowy presence in a storyline  that connects child abuse rings in the 1970s and 80s to present day sex trafficking.

I’m sticking with the seaside for my final book in the chain. In the Sweep of the Bay by Cath Barton uses Lancashire’s vast Morecambe Bay, for a tightly written tale of marriage and love. I score double points with this choice because the town of Morecambe also has a connection to a famous name in entertainment. It’s the birth town of Eric Morecambe, one half of the ultra famous comedy double act Morecambe and Wise. Eric took his stage surname from the name of the town. The novella opens with the reflections of a man hired to clean the statue of Eric Morecambe that stands on the promenade.

Eric Morecambe in his “skip dance” pose

For the benefit of non UK readers I should explain that back in the 1970s and early 80s the Morecambe and Wise end of year Christmas specials were some of the highest rated TV programmes of the era. Christmas simply was not Christmas without this duo.

Since this chain has been a bit on the gloomy side, let’s lighten the mood with the help of this duo. Just click the link to hear them perform their signature tune: Bring Me Sunshine .

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