Six Degrees of Separation – from How to Be Both to Mãn

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.

Cover images

This month’s chain begins with Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, something of a Marmite book. It’s a difficult novel to describe, a dual narrative that features a young girl whose mother has recently died and an Italian Renaissance fresco painter. I’m afraid I gave it up.

I much preferred Smith’s more straightforward The Accidental in which an unknown woman bearing gifts turns up, discombobulating the Smart family who are ensconced in their holiday home.

Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood turns Smith’s idea on its head when a man whose car has broken down knocks on the door of the nearest house only to find himself welcomed as if he’s expected.

Perry’s novel is set on the Norfolk Coast, vividly evoked in Jeremy Page’s Salt which sees Pip trying to make sense of his complicated family history which beginning with a man found buried up to his neck in mud

Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces starts with the discovery of a mud-covered boy, found during an archaeological excavation in Poland. Seven-year-old Jakob has fled the Nazis and is taken home to Greece by the archaeologist who discovers him. Michaels’ lyrical novel was a bestseller back in the ‘90s.

Michaels is an award-winning poet as was Helen Dunmore whose Talking to the Dead is a favourite of mine. It tells the story of two sisters, one recovering from a difficult birth which has brought back long-buried memories. It’s a gorgeously poetic book as well as a page-turning thriller.

Some of the most striking descriptions in Dunmore’s novel are of food, as they are in Kim Thúy’s Mãn about a young woman who leaves Vietnam for Montreal to marry a man she doesn’t know. Mãn cooks for the émigrés who frequent her husband’s café longing for a taste of home. The powerful link between food and memory runs throughout this lovely novella which is also a celebration of language.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a dual-narrative novel, split between the twentieth and fifteenth centuries to a Montreal café serving Vietnamese food to the homesick. 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.

23 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation – from How to Be Both to Mãn”

  1. Some lovely links – Smith=>Perry and the mud! I haven’t read any Ali Smith – but the accidental appeals, as does the William Eggleston photo on the cover (I only know because I got a card of that photo for my daughter’s birthday once).

    1. Thank you. I think The Accidental’s very much more accessible that How to Be Both which defeated me, Annabel. I like that photo but have never seen it on a card.

  2. Delighted to see Fugitive Pieces get a mention, I was bowled over by that book…
    I never imagined that I’d get to hear the author, but she’s a featured speaker at the Auckland Writers Festival in New Zealand, and next month I’m making my first ever trip across the Tasman to hear her.

    1. I’m sure she’ll be an interesting speaker. I’d already posted on her last Monday as part of my Blast From the Past feature which is why that image of the mud-covered boy popped into my head, I think.

    2. I’m sure she’ll be an interesting speaker. I’d already posted on Fugitive Pieces on Monday as part of my Blast From the Past feature which is probably why that mud-covered boy image popped into my head.

  3. I have a question about How To Be Both (which I liked more than you did). My understanding is that it was originally published so that some editions had George’s story first, and some Francesco’s. My own paperback edition has G first, as has every single paperback edition that I’ve ever seen in a bookshop. I check this fairly obsessively in every bookshop I visit, and I’ve never seen F first.

    So am I missing something? Did they only do the F first structure in some editions of the original hardback publication?

    1. I wish I could answer your question, Josh. I think you’re right about the alternating hardback editions. If you’re on Twitter I’m sure someone could help you out if you tweeted your question or perhaps got in touch with Penguin. It sounds like you need to have your mind set to rest on this one!

  4. I haven’t read How to be Both as I suspect it’s the sort of book I would give up on too. Maybe I should try The Accidental instead.

  5. Helen Dunmore is a noticeable gap in my reading… not sure why. I have noticed in the past that my library has quite a few of her titles on audio – would her stories suit this format? Where should I start? (although obviously tempted by good food descriptions…. And I think we’ve acknowledged our shared love of Kim Thuy’s writing previously).

    1. We have, indeed. I’m not sure about audio books but I can say that Talking to the Dead would be a good place to start, and it’s a novella which would work well as a taster. I hope you enjoy whatever you decide to read by her. She’s one of my all-time favourite writers.

  6. I loved How to Be Both but I suspect it was because my edition began with the medieaval Francesco rather than the contemporary narration. I suspect if I had started with George I would have found it more irritating

  7. When Ali Smith first made it across the pond, I read each book religiously and then simply lost track and haven’t gotten back to her. Just last week I was pulling every single one of her books, since, off the shelves (in a library in the city which has them all, but it’s been under construction, so the books aren’t circulating in the system, unless someone physically borrows them from that location, so it’s kinda like a reference library with almost every book just sitting there – super fun!) and debating whether to start from where I left off or to begin from the most recent and work back (but, then, it seems like I should wait for Summer in that case, doesn’t it?). She’s just so clever. (Although I understand why that doesn’t always work for everyone – do you ever think of trying again with How to Be Both? Or were you simply too annoyed?)

    1. She’s a very inventive writer. I’ve only managed to read Spring but have Winter waiting on my shelves and probably ought to leave it there until later in the year. I’m afraid I didn’t pick up How To Be Both again. I just couldn’t get on with it!

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