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 Chuck Palahniuk’s The Fight Club which I confess I haven’t read but I gather it’s about an underground club where young men fight each other although I’m sure there’s more to it than that.
Taking my cue from the title Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club is altogether gentler. It’s about four recent Chinese immigrants to the US who meet once a week to play mahjong , exchange stories about home and hopes about their daughters’ futures.
Given my liking for stories about immigrants I though one of those would pop into my head but instead it was Alex Comfort’s TheJoy of Sex which became a bestseller in the 1970s.
Which leads me to Meg Wolitzer’s The Position about the offspring of parents who wrote a bestselling book about their own sex life but whose marriage might not be as idyllic as everyone assumed.
Meg Wolitzer is also the author of The Wife, about a woman whose husband, a celebrated author, owes his partner a great deal more than he lets on which brings to mind Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Brown revealed that his own wife provided the expert research for his megaseller when a couple of authors accused him of plagiarism. And, no, I haven’t read it.
The Da Vinci Code was the most donated novel to UK charity shops in its heyday as was E. L. James’ Fifty Shade of Grey which I also haven’t read but I do know that Anastasia Steele tells Christian Grey that she’s a virgin
Which brings me to Pamela Erens’ The Virgins set in a New England prep school about two students whose passionate relationship might not be quite what it seems.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an underground fighting club to a New England prep school by way of some surprising books. 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.
I was attracted to the premise of Pamela Erens’ slim, third novel before I remembered that I’d already read her second, The Virgins, set against the backdrop of a New England school rife with speculation about the golden couple of its senior year. Eleven Hours is entirely different. The titular hours are the length of Lore’s labour attended by Franckline, the midwife assigned to her. Erens explores the relationship that forms between these two very different women from Lore’s admittance to the hospital to a few hours after the birth.
Lore arrives unaccompanied but with a comprehensive birth plan which Franckline discreetly tosses aside. Her years of experience have taught her that the birth rarely follows a plan, no matter how detailed it may be. Lore is in the early stages of labour but the night’s slow enough for her to be given a private room. Franckline is from Haiti, fascinated by the process of birth since she was six years old but beset by difficulties with her own dreams of having children. She’s in the early stages of a third pregnancy and has yet to tell her husband, too anxious to share her news in case something goes wrong. Lore is pretty much alone in the world but determined to bring this child up well. Soleil, as she’s chosen to call the baby not knowing if it’s a boy or a girl, is the child of Asa, the lover she met through her friend Julia. All three had become entangled in a relationship until it became clear that Asa and Julia had become lovers again. These two women are engaged in something that happens everywhere, every day: one helping the other through the pain and sheer hard graft of childbirth, each of them entering their own reveries in the increasingly brief periods of calm.
Eleven Hours is a short, extraordinarily intense novel. Flitting backwards and forwards between Lore and Franckline, Erens unfolds these two women’s stories through the memories, reflections, worries and observations which take up their thoughts between the comings and goings of doctors and the contractions which Franckline supports and encourages Lore through. Her writing is often striking – Lore ‘has flung her pain into this public space, not caring who observed it’ – and sometimes funny: ‘you were supposed to relax and breathe, but she soon discovered it felt much better to pull hard at the pipes and curse loudly’ thinks Lore, lying on her bathroom floor. The deeply intimate yet ephemeral relationship of these two women is acutely observed and tenderly portrayed. It’s harrowing at times, and nail-biting towards the end, but Erens spares us from excessively graphic description. It’s an impressive piece of fiction which vividly conveys the uniqueness of every birth despite its almost prosaic occurrence. I enjoyed The Virgins, but this is much better.
The second part of March’s paperbacks stays here in the UK for a while then wanders around all over the place finally arriving at one of my favourite literary destinations. Stella Duffy’s London Lies Beneath begins in August 1912 and follows three friends who have grown up together in the slums of Walworth where they’re expected to live out their lives. When the more adventurous of the three hears of a scouting trip he’s determined to go, taking the other two with him with tragic results. The blurb describes it as ‘a song of south London, of working class families with hidden histories, of a bright and complex world long neglected’. I’ve enjoyed Duffy’s previous London novels – she has a knack for catching the atmosphere of the place, and what a great jacket.
London – or at least the City – is the old stomping ground of sixty-year-old Matthew Oxenhay who is driving along the A303 towards Barnet, leaving Somerset behind him in Jim Powell’s Trading Futures. 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. 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. Sharply observed and grimly funny, in the end Matthew’s journey is a sobering one.
Marriage and infidelity also run through Anna Raverat’s Lover. Kate’s marriage begins to unravel when she discovers her husband’s dalliance with another woman. Work offers no comfort as her boss becomes increasingly demanding. Amidst this turmoil, Kate’s priority is to protect her daughters but her life is in tatters. ‘Told with warmth and lightness, even as it also mines real depths of sorrow, Lover is a novel about the hand that life can deal you, and how to play it with grace. Beautifully observed, full of wisdom, poetry and humour, it asks what it means to be true in all things, and in so doing, how to live’ say the publishers, which makes it sound like a nice piece of intelligent, absorbing fiction.
Keeping it in the family, Elizabeth Hay’s His Whole Life is a coming-of-age novel which follows Jim and his mother over seven difficult years as the bond between them deepens ‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’ asks ten-year-old Jim from the back seat of the family car. This is the question that will recur throughout Hay’s richly complex and intimate portrait of an extended family, each time revealing more about its characters. I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Hay’s nuanced understated fiction – her Late Nights on Air is one of my favourite novels. If you haven’t read her yet, please do. You won’t be disappointed
Complex family dynamics are a theme of Neil Hegarty’s adroit Inch Levels, set in Derry against the background of the Troubles, about a young man with only a few weeks to live, wrestling with a dilemma and the tortured family history that has led him to it. As Patrick’s recollections unfold they reveal a family whose emotions have been smothered: a mother closed off, unable to express affection; a father doing the best he can but unable to compensate and two children, confused and resentful but knowing that each is all the other has. It’s an engaging novel which shows rather than tells, richly repaying close attention.
Finding his family is on the mind of an American student with debts to settle in Miroslav Pensov’s Stork Mountain. He heads for the village of Klisura, deep in the Strandja Mountains on the Bulgarian side of the border with Turkey within spitting distance of Greece, hoping to sell his family’s land and track down his incommunicado grandfather. Beautifully expressed and often very funny, Stork Mountain weaves folklore, dreams and history through its long and winding narrative, often turning back on itself. It’s not an easy read, occasionally bewildering with its many stories, myths and legends overlapping with history, but it’s worth the effort.
Klisura once found itself part of the Communist state, the eventual result of the turbulent political upheavals which twenty-two-year-old Gerty Freely finds herself caught up in. Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist follows Gerty to Moscow where she takes up a position as a governess. Three years after her arrival, revolution transforms the city throwing the bourgeois into panicky bag-packing but Gerty decides to stay, becoming involved in a communal living experiment led by a charismatic inventor. His sudden disappearance leaves Gerty alone and vulnerable.
Straining for a link to Pamela Erens’ Eleven Hours but I think I it’s beyond me. Set in New York, the novel reveals the lives of two women – one in labour, the other her Haitian midwife. It’s the ‘taut sensitive prose’ of the publisher’s blurb that attracts me to this one together with the interweaving of the stories of two women from very different backgrounds. The ‘sometimes harrowing’ description is a little off-putting but at least we’ve been warned.
That’s it for March’s paperbacks which are many and varied, studded with several gems. Should you be interested, a click on a title will take you to my reviews for Trading Futures, His Whole Life, Inch Levels and Stork Mountain, or to a fuller synopsis for the others. If you’d like to catch up with part one, it’s here – March hardbacks are here and here.
Back from a week in the wilds of Herefordshire with a look at what’s ahead in the July publishing schedules. No contest as to which book should begin this post for me. Sarah Moss has left the nineteenth-century setting of Bodies of Light and its sequel Signs for Lost Children, leap-frogging the twentieth century to land in the present day with The Tidal Zone. Shockingly, Adam is contacted by his fifteen-year-old daughter’s school to be told that she has collapsed for no apparent reason and has stopped breathing. ‘The Tidal Zone explores parental love, overwhelming fear, illness and recovery. It is about clever teenagers and the challenges of marriage. It is about the NHS, academia, sex and gender in the twenty-first century, the work-life juggle, and the politics of packing lunches and loading dishwashers’ say the publishers which sounds a world away from Moss’s last two novels, both shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize, but I’ve no doubt she’ll match their excellence with this one.
Carrying on the family theme, Mary Gaitskill’s Mare – her first novel for some time – sees Ginger, a forty-seven-year-old recovering alcoholic, trying to persuade her reluctant new husband to adopt a child. They compromise, joining an organisation that sends poor city kids to the country for a few weeks but soon Ginger has become entranced by eleven-year-old Velveteen Vargas who they have welcomed into their comfortable upstate New York home, inviting her to visit whenever she likes. ‘Mary Gaitskill has created a devastating portrait of the unbridgeable gaps between people, and the way we long for fairytale endings’ say the publishers. I haven’t had much luck with Gaitskill’s work in the past but this sounds an interesting premise
Pamela Erens’ Eleven Hours also explores bonds that can form in highly emotive circumstances. Set in New York, the novel reveals the lives of two women – one in labour, the other her Haitian midwife. It’s the ‘taut sensitive prose’ of the publisher’s blurb that attracts me to this one together with the interweaving of the stories of two women from very different backgrounds. The ‘sometimes harrowing’ description is a little off-putting but at least we’ve been warned.
This first batch of July goodies ends with a writer whose novels – rather like Mary Gaitskill’s – I’ve failed to get on with in the past but the synopsis is wacky enough to make this one worth investigating. In Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality, Professor Solete has bequeathed his Theory of Everything to Eliade Jenks, a scruffy waitress who the rest of his circle look down their sniffy Oxford noses at. Unfortunately, the manuscript can’t be found so Eliade sets out to track it down. Now comes the interesting bit as, according to the blurb, she ‘falls down a rabbit-hole of metaphysical possibility. From a psychotropic tea party to the Priests of the Quantum Realm, she trips her way through Solete’s wonderland reality and, without quite meaning to, bursts open the boundaries of her own’ which suggests to me that it could either be fascinating or backfire horribly. The novel comes illustrated by Oly Ralfe.
As ever, a click on any title that catches your eye will take you to a fuller synopsis. More to follow but not before a ‘what I did on my holidays’ post later this week…
Pamela Erens’ second novel comes with not one but two glowing quotes from John Irving’s New York Times Book Review piece on the cover. I’m amazed that even the New York Times can persuade an author of Irving’s lofty stature to review a book but clearly they have an impressive literary editor. It’s set in Irving’s own New England stomping ground at a prep school full of kids whose parents are bent on a glowing future for their offspring no matter how troubled and complicated their own lives have become. One such is the narrator, Bruce Bennett-Jones, now a theatre director who is looking back to the events of 1979. Every year the senior boys scrutinise the new girls as they arrive, avid for the possibility of sexual opportunity. Aviva, extraordinarily dressed in a split-skirted purple dress and high heels, catches everyone’s eye. She soon becomes involved with Seung, the son of strict Korean parents. Athletic, popular, the overseer of his dorm, he’s a boy who knows how to bend the rules and how not to get caught. They quickly become a golden couple: attractive, utterly besotted and open enough about it for every student at Auburn Academy to fantasise enviously about what they get up to, not least Bruce who has conceived an obsession for Aviva. But is their relationship all that it’s assumed to be?
I wasn’t at all sure I was going to like The Virgins – a couple of scenes of clumsy, over excited adolescent intimacy and I’d begun to worry that the entire novel would follow the same pattern – however Erens gradually draws you in, engaging your sympathy for her characters: very early on we know things are not going to turn out well for Aviva and Seung. Bruce is our guide to Auburn Academy, his unpleasantness established right from the start with his description of the Jewish Aviva as ‘one of those’. The suffocating atmosphere of a boarding school where everything becomes magnified, all perspective lost amidst the burgeoning adolescent sexuality and experimentation is vividly and skilfully evoked. Although we’re prepared for an unhappy ending the final twist when it comes is utterly shocking. Not a comfortable read then, but a thoroughly absorbing one.