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 other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.
This month we’re starting with Wild Swans. Subtitled ‘Three Daughters of China’, it’s Jung Chang’s family history, beginning before the arrival of Communism with her grandmother. I sold shedloads of this when I was a bookseller. It was hugely popular and not an easy read, either. The sight of its original cover still catapults me back to those days.
Which leads me to Eli Goldstone’s Strange Heart Beating, published earlier in the year adorned with one of the most striking covers I’ve seen for some time. One look at it tells you that the myth of Leda and the Swan has to be in there somewhere. The novel explores grief, love and secrets through the recently widowed Seb who takes himself off to Latvia, the birthplace of his beautiful wife Leda where he finds he hardly knew her at all.
The theme of Leda and the Swan takes me to Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop in which Melanie’s puppeteer uncle stages a performance of the myth with his niece playing the part of Leda, assaulted by a monstrous mechanical swan. It’s a vividly memorable scene, both in the book and in the TV adaptation which starred Tom Bell as a terrifying Uncle Philip.
Carter died well before her time as did her close friend Lorna Sage whose memoir Bad Blood came close to Wild Swans in its popularity. Sexually alluring yet desperately naïve, Sage became pregnant at sixteen. Determined to continue with her studies, she took her A-levels shortly after giving birth to her daughter. She won a scholarship to Durham University where both she and her teenage husband gained Firsts.
Which leads me to Helen Oyeyemi who also managed to secure a university place despite producing her first novel while studying for her A-levels. The Icarus Girl, in which a little girl has a particularly malicious imaginary friend, is quite possibly the most terrifying piece of fiction I’ve ever read. Admittedly, I’m a coward but Lesley Glaister, no slouch at putting the frighteners on her readers, described it as ‘the most haunting and disturbing novel I’ve ever read’.
Oyeyemi’s novels leads me to Michael Frayn’s Headlong whose narrator convinces himself that he’s found a missing work by Pieter Bruegel, the celebrated artist who painted The Fall of Icarus. I’m not a huge fan of Frayn’s writing but Headlong combines erudition with high farce, a cast of entertaining characters and a page-turning pace.
Frayn is married to the award-winning biographer Claire Tomalin whose book about Ellen Ternan, Dicken’s mistress, I loved. The Invisible Woman puts the man regarded by many as a national treasure in an altogether unflattering light while illuminating the plight of nineteenth-century women through Ternan.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a bestselling family history about three generations of women in China to a biography of a celebrated nineteenth-century British author’s mistress. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. 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.