From slaps to battles in #6degrees

the slap #6Degrees of separation, hosted by Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best starts this month with The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas.  I’ve not read this book though it gained so much publicity when it was published that only sequestration in a remote mountain retreat sans phone, tv, newspapers, would have prevented me getting to know about it. This was a controversial book that puts liberal, middle class attitudes towards child control under scrutiny, via an opening chapter in which an adult slaps another person’s kid who is misbehaving at a Melbourne barbecue. We’re talking here about consequences.

Which leads me seamlessly into another book in which one action, one mistake, has long atonementterm repercussions: Atonement by Ian McEwan. The mistake is made by Robbie, the son of housekeeper at a posh country house. He’s passionately in love with Cecilia , the eldest daughter of the household though she’s well above his station in life. He writes her a letter expressing his feelings. He asks Cecilia’s impressionable younger sister Briony to deliver this missive. But he gives her the wrong version, the one that is sexually explicit. Briony opens it and completely misunderstands what she reads. Before the night is over two children have gone missing, a young girl is raped, class prejudices come to light, Robbie is in custody and his relationship with Cecilia seems doomed.  I say doomed because this is a novel which ends with a twist … if you want to know what that is, you’ll just have to read the book.

Brideshead revisitedThe tempestuous relationship shown in Atonement reminds me of another remarkable novel which deals with class divisions: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. There are other parallels between these two novels: both include a pivotal, emotionally charged scene at a huge fountain in the grounds of a country mansion and both see one of the principal characters go off to fight for their country in a global conflict.

From here it’s but a short step to another novel where an illicit, highly charged relationship is set birdsongagainst the background of war. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks takes us to the theatre of conflict in France during World War 1 and the preparations for what will become the mass slaughter of the Somme.  Part of this involves the digging of tunnels underneath no-man’s land and into the enemy’s own defences where the idea is to listen in to their plans. Who could be more suited for this work than coal miners from Wales who are experts at lying on their backs, in the dark, setting explosives and chipping away at the rockface?

Mention of Wales of course brings me back to my homeland. For my next link I could take the easy way out and choose one of the many novels set in the coal-mining area but I thought it would be more interesting to show rather less predictable facets of our Principality.

OnTheBlackHillSo let’s start with the fact much of Wales, was – and in many parts still is – prime farmland. Farming and the pull of the land feature heavily in On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin. The title might give you the impression this is about the ‘hills’ formed from the black waste of coal mining but in fact it refers to the Mynydd Ddu (translated to Black Mountains) range in Mid Wales, on the border between England and Wales. This is the location of an isolated upland farm called The Vision farmed by twin brothers Lewis and Benjamin Jones, between whom a special and very strong bond develops. They till the rough soil and sleep in the same bed well into their eighties, touched only occasionally by the advances of the twentieth century and the call for Benjamin to serve his country in World War 1. At times they resent each other yet they are too tightly entwined to be wrought apart and too closely bound with the land to ever leave.

Many of the places mentioned in the novel exist in reality including the market town Resistanceof Hay on Wye (yes this is the place that hosts the Hay Literary Festival). Mention of Hay-on-Wye and borderlands takes me to Owen Shears’ debut novel Resistance which imagines that the Germans defeated the Normandy landings of 1944. In the sparsely populated farmlands of the Black Mountains, all the men have disappeared,  leaving their wives to run the farms and look after the animals. At first they are hostile when a German patrol arrives in the valley but as a harsh winter takes hold they have to find an accommodation of sorts with the invaders.

During the course of the novel we learn that the farmers are all in hiding underground, preparing to become members of a secret British resistance movement. Shears connects their endeavours with an old Welsh legend in which a Prince of Wales sleeps with his solders in secret caves, readying them for a call to arms.

dragonsWelsh royalty and conflict between Wales and England brings me to the final novel in my chain: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman. This is the first of her trilogy about the medieval princes of Gwynedd (an ancient county in North Wales) and their long-standing conflict with the monarchs of England during the12th and 13th centuries. Over the course of the three novels we meet two figures who are central to Welsh history – Llywellyn the Great  (known in Welsh as Llywelyn ap Iorwerth) and  his grand-son Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, the last native born Prince of Wales. The trilogy is a well researched account of the conflict and battle of wills between the Welsh nobility and the English kings, played out in the castles stretching along the border between the two nations.  It feels over-written at times but Penman does show clearly men who have to contend with competing loyalties to family, king and country.

And there the chain ends. We started at a barbecue in Australia’s second largest city and end at a castle in Wales. As always, the books I mention are ones I have read even if, in the case of Sharon Penman, it was some 20 years ago.


About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on May 7, 2017, in Six Degrees of Separation, Sunday Salon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. I love how everyone’s lists are so different!

  2. I loved all the Welsh books you have given me with this chain.
    I once read a Patrick O’Brien novel set in Wales with a protagonist called Bronwyn (which is why I picked it up, since there are so few book characters with my name) which was disturbing & tragic and unforgettable.

    • Well Patrick needed to do a bit more homework since then he would have discovered that within Wales the spelling is actually Bronwen (anything with a suffix of wyn is masculine). Bronwen means bron (“breast”) and gwen (“white, fair, blessed)”
      So now you know!

  3. What superb links. Wish I’d thought of Atonement for the first! I’ve been meaning to read Resistance for ages being a fan of Sheers’ other work.

    • I see other people’s links and invariably the reaction is ‘why didn’t I think of that’. Doesnt it show how the brain thinks so tangentially though and yet when we come to plan essays/reports etc we write in a linear fashion? Odd that ….

  4. You have the most interesting posts. Resistance sounds interesting. Adding to my may read list. The Slap used to be on that list but I made the mistake of watching part of the short-lived American TV series based on the book…and kinda lost interest. p.s. I need to message you re a correction (unrelated to this), what’s the best way to do that?

    • Hi Joanne. I discovered yesterday from another blogger that there was a tv series of The Slap, not that it would have made me any more interested in the book. As for contacting me – either do a direct message on Twitter if you have an account (my handle is @bookertalk) or send me an email at heenandavies at yahoo dot co dot uk

  5. The Slap was not for me – gave up on it after less than a third of the book! On The Black Hill though was one of those books that brought me back my reading habit that I’d lost after Uni – great book.

    • Did you see the film of On the Black Hill too Col? It’s years since I saw it last but I thought it was wonderful.

      • I did see the film many years ago ( think was early days of Channel 4!!!) and I loved it. It led me to re-read On The Black Hill and it was as just as good second time round!

  6. Great links! You’ve included two of my favourite books – Atonement and On the Black Hill, both novels I loved – and the others are books I want to read, with the exception of The Slap.

  7. The Slap was a TV show here for a while…there wasn’t a second season, but I wasn’t satisfied by the “ending.” I couldn’t stand the characters…LOL. They were all very annoying, especially the “hippie” parents who wouldn’t discipline their child. (Which doesn’t excuse the slap, of course).

    Atonement was one of the few McEwan books I really enjoyed…and I liked the movie, too.

    Thanks for sharing! Enjoy your week.

  8. Great choices, and there’s a couple I haven’t read so I shall chase them up. I’ve been meaning to read Here Be Dragons for years!

    • Oddly none of these won the Booker – some like Brideshead because they pre-dated the prize and others wouldnt have been considered of high enough quality (the Penman). Atonement would have been a strong contender though

  9. Great links Karen. I particularly like the Atonement one – and of course from there to Brideshead is perfect too. I haven’t read any Faulks which is terrible I know, but I did enjoy the film Charlotte Gray (with Cate Blanchett).

  10. The Bruce Chatwin novel just sprang out at me – I’ve not come across this title before but I shall now have to seek it out – thank you! 🙂

We're all friends here. Come and join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: