We start this month’s Six Degrees Of Separation with a novel that’s a cult classic.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a disturbingly dark post-apocalyptic novel in which a father and son walk alone through a landscape ravaged by a catastrophe. It’s a novel I read but didn’t enjoy at all – I found it repetitive and jerky.
The unnamed duo were heading south on their journey but for my first link I’m heading in the opposite direction.
Richard Flanagan won the Booker Prize in 2014 with The Narrow Road To The Deep North. It’s one of my absolute favourite Booker winners
The “road’ in the title is actually a railroad – the infamous Thailand-Burma Death Railway of World War 2. The novel shows how the lives of the prisoners forced to work on the railroad and the Japanese soldiers who guard them, are impacted long after the end of the war. In the novel Flanagan asks questions about reconciliation and atonement.
The experience of Japanese prisoners of war feature prominently in a Town Like Alice by Neville Shute. He was inspired to write the novel after meeting a woman who was part of a group of women and children captured by Japanese forces. In Shute’s version, the group is forced to march from camp to camp for two and a half years.
After the war, Shute’s protagonist travels to Australia to track down a soldier who had stolen food and medicines for the women on their march. Eventually she finds him in the Queensland outback.
An author very familiar with Australia’s isolated bush regions was Miles Franklin. It’s the setting for her first novel, My Brilliant Career, a coming of age tale of a headstrong girl in whom ambition blazes. Franklin gives her heroine Sybylla Melvyna belief that she is destined for a life more fulfilling than rearing cattle and sheep or being “shackled” in marriage.
Sybylla reminds me so much of the eponymous character in My Ántonia by Willa Cather. That too is set in a wild landscape (Nebraska) among farmers and settlers who battle against nature to make a living. Appropriately for this month’s chain, it opens with a train journey during which two passengers reminisce about Antonia – a spirited girl they once knew. Cather’s novel celebrates the beauty of the Nebraskan plains yet it doesn’t sentimentalise the harshness of the climate.
There is no hint of sentimentality either in my fifth novel, A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale. Set in the remote plains of Saskatchewan, Canada, Gale shows his central character, Harry Cane, arrive as a homesteader with barely an idea of what to expect. He’s never farmed, never done any manual work and in his first winter, has no shelter except a tent in which to ride out sub zero temperatures.
Harry is an exile, escaping from a comfortable life in England to avoid discovery of a homosexual relationship that would, if made public, have ruined him.
Let’s continue with this idea of travel as a form of escape and pick a novel in which the character goes even further north to evade capture.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan sees a young slave boy travel take flight from a cotton plantation in 19th-century Barbados, ending up in the Arctic circle. He does travel by road and rail occasionally but the most remarkable journey in the novel is the one he takes by hot air balloon. As a plot device that takes some beating!
So that’s my #6Degrees; moving from a dystopian novel to stories set in harsh landscapes and ending with a journey to the end of the earth. We’ve travelled by foot, train and balloon (doesn’t quite have the same ring as planes, trains and automobiles but I tried my best)…
Next month we start with a book that it seems impossible to escape right now – Normal People by Sally Rooney.
Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the titles on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.
It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation – hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best – where each month, a book is selected as the start of a chain. The idea is to link it with six other books.
This month we begin with The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles which was published in 1969. I remember enjoying it though the details are a bit hazy. The film version with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons left a lasting impression, primarily because Streep got to wear this fantastic hooded cape that I yearned to own.
The novel relates the intense relationship between a former governess and an amateur naturalist. Sarah Woodruff, the Woman of the title, is also referred to as “Tragedy” and as “The French Lieutenant’s Whore”. She lives in the coastal town of Lyme Regis in Dorset as a disgraced woman, supposedly abandoned by an officer from a French ship. Much of the novel sees her standing on The Cobb, a stone jetty, staring out to sea.
The Cobb plays a key role in a novel from a much earlier period, Persuasion, the last novel fully completed by Jane Austen. It was published at the end of 1817, six months after her death. On a visit to Lyme Regis, one girl’s impetuous behaviour leads to a serious fall and concussion. It causes a change of attitude by a naval captain towards her sister Anne, the girl who he once wanted to marry but who rejected him.
All comes right in the end which is more than can be said for the unfortunate couple in my next book who play out their relationship just a little further along the same coastline. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007.
It’s an achingly sad novella about the young couple Edward and Florence, who arrive to spend their honeymoon at a hotel near the beach. Though this novel is set in the Sixties, they are both sexual innocents, very nervous about their first night together. The gulf that develops between them that night affects the rest of their lives.
Florence is a talented violinist, who dreams that one day, the quartet she has formed, will be esteemed talented enough to play at the prestigious Wigmore Hall in London.
The violinist in my next novel is already a success yet he is haunted by memories of the pianist he loved and left ten years earlier. An Equal Music by Vikram Seth sees the two lovers find each other once again but one of them has a secret that could mark the end of any hopes of a permanent reconciliation. Not surprisingly, this is a novel that is suffused with feelings of sadness and loss.
An Equal Music is about the desire to return to the past, to rekindle a former relationship. My next choice is also about the desire to return to the past but this time the desire to find the former lover represents a form of escape.
The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West recounts the return of Captain Chris Baldry, to his large country estate near London, from the trenches of the First World War. Suffering from shell shock, he doesn’t remember the death of his infant son, doesn’t recognise his wife nor his cousin, doesn’t even know that he is married. All he remembers is Margaret, with whom he had a summer romance 15 years earlier. All three women have to decide whether they should try to “cure” him and return him to the here and now.
My final book in this chain has not one but two connections to The Return of the Soldier (this instance of over-achievement is unlikely to be repeated so enjoy it while you can). Both were debut novels written by young women. Both disappeared from public view for decades but are now considered as modern classics.
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (a pseudonym for her actual name of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin) was written in 1901 when she was 20 years old. It was intended as a tale set in the Australian outback, to amuse her friends but its popularity and criticism that it was more an autobiography than a novel , caused the author to withdraw the book from sale until after her death. Since 1966 it has never been out of print. The author left a permanent mark on the Australian literary scene with her endowment of the Miles Franklin prize.
And there we must bring this chain to an end. We’ve been to Dorset and the South East England and finally to Australia. Hope you enjoyed the journey. I’ve read all of the first six books mentioned and am currently reading My Brilliant Career.