Six Degrees of Separation: From Hamnet to Heart of Darkness

I’m so late with this month’s Six Degrees that if I’m not careful, it will be time for next month’s book.

So let’s get cracking with a chain that begins with Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. I know this wasn’t rated highly by a number of bloggers I follow, but it was one of my favourite reads from 2020.

The novel is a re-imagination of the death of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, and how each parent experiences grief. The father buries himself in work while his wife Agnes roams the streets near her home, constantly looking for her child around every corner.

A mother’s grief also forms the basis of The Jump by Doug Johnstone. Ellie Sharp is torn apart by the suicide of her teenage son Logan, her life absorbed by two questions: why did he kill himself and why couldn’t she have prevented him? 

Johnstone was one of the authors who took part in the Orenda Roadshow in Wales in February 2020. It was a memorable evening, not just because of the stellar international line up of Orenda published authors but because it the last time I was able to get to an in-person literary event (remember those??).

Also at the event was Vanya Symonds from New Zealand. I bought all three of the titles in her police procedural series featuring a young female police constable in rural New Zealand. I got around to reading the first of these, Overkill last week and am now waiting for my dad to return the next two ( I hope he’s remembered I want them back!).

I can count on one hand the number of authors from New Zealand that I’ve read. I’m sure there are some excellent writers but they don’t seem to make it into the UK market. One that comes to mind, largely because she was the youngest ever winner of the Booker Prize, is Eleanor Catton. Her winning novel, The Luminaries, also had the distinction of being the longest Booker winner up until that date, weighing in at 848 pages.

Much was made of the affinity between the narrative structure of Catton’s novel and the work of the man considered a master of the sensation novel, Wilkie Collins. I think the comparison is specifically to one of Collins’ best-known works The Woman in White which, just like The Luminaries, has multiple narrators who pool their knowledge to get to the bottom of some strange events.

It’s a dramatic tale, inspired by an actual criminal case, that begins with a young traveller’s eerie encounter on a moonlit London road with a mysterious and distressed woman dressed entirely in white. The apparition in Susan Hill ‘s novel The Woman in Black wears clothing of a different colour but is no less atmospheric in its portrayal of the haunting of a small English town.

Hill’s novel uses the familiar device of a story within a story. Which leads me to another book that uses the nested narrative technique: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad which begins with a group of passengers aboard a boat floating on the River Thames. One of them, Charlie Marlow, relates a haunting experience from a time when he travelled up the Congo in search of an ivory trader rumoured to have succumbed to madness.

This month’s Six Degrees has taken me from the reimagined life of a famous playwright in a small town in England, via New Zealand to the Belgian Congo. The joy of this meme is the way other bloggers take very different paths in their chains. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

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