Tag Archives: John Lanchester

Six Degrees of Separation – from Memoirs of a Geisha to Capital #6Degrees

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.

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I’m somewhat late to this month’s party, having spent a week in Spain (more of which next week). We’re starting with Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha which took the bestseller charts by storm back in the late ‘90s. Although I’ve read it, I can’t say it stands out in my memory.

Given the Japanese connection I can’t resist linking to a book by one of my favourite writers, Haruki Murakami. Last month I wrote a Blast from the Past post about one of his wackiest novels, A Wild Sheep Chase. To balance that I’ve chosen South of the Border, West of the Sun, a much more accessible pieces of fiction about a happily married man forced to remember his past when his childhood sweetheart reappears.

Cats pop up all over the place in Murakami’s fiction which takes me to Takashi Hiraide’s elegantly pared-back The Guest Cat about a reclusive young couple who open up their home and hearts to a stray cat and are then faced with the prospect of moving. Short but not slight, it’s a thoughtful rather lovely book.

Cats are not known for paying their way as opposed to Sarah Waters’ characters in  The Paying Guests which sees an impoverished war widow and her daughter reluctantly take in lodgers. Lots of readers loved Waters’ first twentieth-century set novel but I much prefer her Victorian pastiches.

One of the best examples of Victorian pastiche I’ve read is Charles Pallisers’ The Quincunx which I pulled off the shelves earlier in the year for H who was recovering from a nasty chest infection. It’s many years since I read it but I do remember it has a satisfyingly convoluted plot and an equally pleasing unreliable narrator.

I haven’t read Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series but H tells me I really should given that I’m a fan of state of the nation novels. Made up of six separate books, the series was once known as the Parliamentary Novels and was adapted for TV back in the days before the BBC thought it was a good idea to condense a long piece of fiction into four parts.

Which leads me to a more recent state of the nation novel of which there are many to choose from but I’m plumping for John Lanchester’s Capital because of its clever premise – surveying the nation through the fortunes of one London street just after the global financial collapse of 2008.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an ageing woman’s memories of her life as a geisha in early twentieth-century Japan to a single London street holding up a mirror to my own nation in 2008. 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.

Six Degrees of Separation – from Picnic at Hanging Rock to A Vindication of the Rights of Women #6Degrees

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’s starting point is Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock chosen by Brona. I’m pretty sure I’ve read the book but what really sticks in my mind is Peter Weir’s mesmeric film adaptation which I must have seen at least four times. Those inappropriately clad young ladies, all white muslin dresses and black boots, climbing Hanging Rock in blistering heat then disappearing without trace made a striking image on the big screen. It’s rare for me to think that a film adaptation either matches or eclipses the book but very occasionally it does happen which leads me to my second book.

I’m not a huge fan of Virginia Woolf but I have read and enjoyed Orlando, although not as many times as I’ve seen Sally Potter’s sumptuous film adaptation which *whisper it* I prefer. In the book the eponymous protagonist begins as a young nobleman in Elizabethan England and ends as a young woman in 1928, the year women were enfranchised; the movie takes her up to the 1990s. Archly comic, the film is full of gorgeous tableaux with Tilda Swinton as a fabulous Orlando, charmingly gauche and suitably androgynous, seamlessly changing gender after a century or so.

One of Woolf’s best known novels follows a day in the life of an upper-class woman in post-First World War England which leads me to John Lanchester’s Mr Phillips who puts on his suit, packs his briefcase and leaves his South London house one warm July Monday morning. He’s worked as an accountant for over thirty years and has been made redundant but can’t quite bring himself to tell Mrs Phillips. So begins a day on which Mr Phillips will chat with a pornographer, visit the Tate Gallery and become caught up in one of the biggest dramas of his life. Strewn with coincidences, this take on Mrs Dalloway gets under the skin of middle-aged suburbia in a funny yet poignant portrayal of a man a little lost in the world.

John Lanchester wrote a post-financial crash novel called Capital, dramatized for TV last year, as did Alex Preston. This Bleeding City is about a hedge fund trader, freshly graduated, who becomes distracted by a beautiful woman and a non-stop, drug-fuelled culture of excess. I have to confess that although I’ve read this I had to sneak a quick look at Goodreads to remind myself of it. What did stay with me was the knowledge that Preston’s previous career was as a City trader. Presumably he’s a changed man as  he’s recently collaborated with Neil Gower on what looks like a gorgeously illustrated book about nature, due to be published soon, called As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

Which takes me to Kathleen Jamie one of my favourite nature writers. In Findings she tracks the elusive corncrake on the island of Coll, contemplates salmon jumping on a Highland river and experiences the joy of a rare and strange sighting of a crane flying in the Scottish sky. Her writing is both beautiful and down to earth. Hard to resist a writer who starts her chapter: ‘I hacked off the gannet’s head with my penknife, which turned into one of those jobs you wish you’d never started’. It was already dead, by the way.

Jamie is an acclaimed poet as was the late Helen Dunmore one of my favourite authors and much mourned. Her last novel, Birdcage Walk, is the story of a young woman caught up in her passion for a man, many years her senior, intent on fulfilling his ambition of building a grand terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge. Politics, both national and domestic, runs through Dunmore’s novel, all wrapped up in an expert bit of storytelling with a thread of suspense. Brought up to believe ‘that a woman must not be weak, but instead learn to fend for herself’, Lizzie has been made dependent on her husband by the law which prevents married women from owning property. Much of the action in Birdcage Walk takes place in 1792, the French Revolution a worrying spectre across the channel, which takes me to my next book.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Dunmore set her novel in the year that Mary Wollstonecraft’s seminal work A Vindication of the Rights of Women was published. The book is a powerful critique both of women’s education and the assumptions surrounding marriage and family life, and was very much a product of Wollstonecraft’s enthusiasm for the French Revolution, tempered by her disappointment at the failure to take up the cause of women’s rights. It’s at once optimistic, passionate and angry.

So ends my second Six Degrees of Separation which has taken me from the mysterious disappearance of a group of Australian schoolgirls to a passionate argument for women’s rights. I think I’m hooked on this now. If you like the idea, you can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees or perhaps even join in.

Trading Futures by Jim Powell: The unravelling of a betting man

Cover imageWhen I first picked up Jim Powell’s new novel I was looking for a bit of light relief after finishing Olivia Laing’s excellent but often harrowing The Lonely City. I thought it might be a much slimmed down version of John Lanchester’s Capital or Justin Cartwright’s Other People’s Money, a post-financial crash novel, which to some extent it is but it’s also about what can happen to us when our lives turn out to be far from what we’d hoped.

Sixty-year-old Matthew Oxenhay is driving along the A303 towards Barnet, leaving Somerset behind him. Whether he continues in that direction depends on his wife not answering her phone. If she does answer it, he’ll tell her he’s leaving her, turn around and head back to Anna in Somerset. He’ll make the phone call if five white cars pass him. Matthew is a chronic gambler, albeit an apparently respectable one, trading futures in the City up until a few months ago when he was downsized ahead of the looming global financial meltdown. He even got the job as the result of a backfiring bet with his fellow students way back in the ’60s, all of them intent on changing the world. Judy, his wife of many years, loves their settled comfortable life but Matthew loathes it. He’s now in the grips of an existential crisis, pretending to Judy that he still has a job, turning up to sit in the office which his old boss has tolerantly allowed him to occupy and drinking far too much. On an errand for his erstwhile employers, Matthew spots an attractive blonde roughly his own age, convincing himself it’s Anna with whom he fell in love one idyllic summer afternoon in 1967. When the two of them click over a drink, Matthew begins to entertain all sorts of ideas.

Matthew’s story unfolds through his own waspish, darkly funny inner monologue. He’s a ‘60s rebel for whom the very idea of a career as a futures trader would have been despicable all those years ago. He’s that uncomfortable mixture of self-loathing and arrogance, dismissing his wife’s careful construction of their comfortable life as dull and prosaic while ruing his own betrayal of his baby boomer ideals. It’s often very funny – there’s a particularly amusing scene with a lunch guest in which Matthew finds himself ‘defending crooked capitalist practices on behalf of the Labour party, while the brave Captain Ahab spoke for the downtrodden masses on behalf of the Tories’. In amongst all this, Matthew comes out with some observations it’s hard to argue with particularly on the subject of the City’s shenanigans. Sharply observed and grimly funny, in the end Matthew’s journey is a sobering one. There are a few unlikely coincidences but it’s good enough to suspend your disbelief. An enjoyable read then – if not quite the antidote to The Lonely City I was looking for – and who can resist a novel which contains the line ‘I think I mostly learn about reality from works of fiction’.