Tag Archives: André Alexis

Six Degrees of Separation – from Like Water for Chocolate to Les Liaisons Dangereuses #6Degrees

I’m a little late to the party this month but so hooked have I become on this meme that I made sure to write a post before we went to Budapest. More on that later in the week for those of you who’re interested.

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 Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate which I have a dim memory of reading although very little of it has stayed with me. I do remember reading Meaghan Delahunt’s In the Blue House which is set in Esquivel’s native Mexico. It’s the story of Trotsky’s brief affair with Frieda Kahlo, encompassing the turbulent history of Communist Russia from its inception to the death of Joseph Stalin.

Communist Russia is the backdrop for Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, made famous here in the UK largely through the film starring Julie Christie as Lara and Omar Sharif as the eponymous doctor engaged in a doomed love affair. The floridly romantic film features a lot of smouldering looks between these two but the book pulls no punches about the brutality of war.

Pasternak’s novel was banned in his native Russia for many years, as was George Orwell’s famous satire on Communism, Animal Farm. Orwell’s novel is the source of the quote ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’ proclaimed by the pigs who’ve put themselves in charge.

Which leads me to another novel featuring talking animals, André Alexis’ Scotiabank Prize-winning Fifteen Dogs which I’d cheerily dismissed until reading his excellent new novel The Hidden Keys. In it a pack of dogs is granted the gift of speech by Apollo and Hermes after a bet in a bar.

Fallen on hard times and living in a rundown house in London rather than Mount Olympus, Greek gods are also up to their tricks in Marie Phillips’ amusing Gods Behaving Badly. This time it’s humans rather than dogs they’re playing with, throwing a spanner into the works of a socially inept couple’s attempts to fall in love.

In Choderlos Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, it’s two morally bankrupt humans in eighteenth-century Paris who are playing games, manipulating lovers and corrupting a naïve young virgin as an act of revenge on her future husband but with unforeseen and devastating results.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from cooking with a dash of magic realism in Mexico to an eighteenth-century epistolary novel set in France. 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.

The Hidden Keys by André Alexis: A hugely enjoyable, sophisticated caper

This is the first book I’ve read by André Alexis. His last novel  was narrated in the voices of its titular dogs which brought back memories of Paul Auster’s Timbuktu, and not happy ones. That said Fifteen Dogs went on to win the Scotiabank Giller prize in 2015 so what do I know? This latest novel is entirely different: a funny, clever and intricately plotted piece of storytelling full of puzzles within puzzles involving an honourable thief, a rich beyond imagining junkie and a treasure hunt.

Tancred Palmieri is a complex character brought up by a single mother whose deathbed wish was that he change his thieving ways. He’s known Willow Azarian for a little while. She’s a junkie, drawn to telling Tancred her story, impressing upon him that she’s an heiress and eventually presenting him with an intriguing challenge. Her stupendously rich father has left each of his five children a memento, something which is of particular significance to them. Willow’s is a beautiful facsimile of a Japanese screen, one panel left blank but for an inscription. She’s convinced that her father has set a puzzle which can only be solved by examining all the artefacts together. Tancred is to steal each one, quietly returning the item once Willow has scrutinised them all. He will, of course, be recompensed. Reluctantly, Tancred agrees and has hardly begun his exacting task when Willow dies. Having given his word, Tancred has no choice but to continue only to find that his best friend is the detective investigating the burglaries and his bête noir, Willow’s dealer, has got wind of what he’s up to together with the reward it might bring. As each piece of this elaborate puzzle painstakingly slots into place, another mystery opens up until finally Tancred is left face to face with himself.

This is a hugely enjoyable novel, a good old-fashioned caper which twists and turns in a baroque fashion as its many conundrums are unfolded. It’s very funny at times – Castle Rose whose designer took his inspiration from M. C. Escher is a particular delight. Alexis excels at elaborate yet flawless plotting, smoothly switching perspective from character to character. The book’s premise reminded me of Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors and its style of Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, both favourites of mine. If there’s any disappointment at the resolution its matched by Tancred’s own and offset by the development of his character. Altogether a delight – packed full with colourful detail and characters, each with a story to tell or be told, and funny with it. I think I should try Fifteen Dogs after all.