‘On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.
I have only just succeeded in borrowing Julia Armfield’s Our Wives under the Sea from the library, so I’ve barely started reading it. But this seems to be a summary to work with: It’s a story of falling in love, loss, grief, and what life there is in the deep deep sea.
Where to start then?
Perhaps with Donal Ryan’s Strange Flowers. This is a tender, lyrical novel, largely based in a rural Ireland, whose modest, gentle landscape encompasses the entire book. At the heart of the novel is Paddy, postman and herdsman, his wife Kit, and their daughter Molly who as the book begins, has disappeared – just gone off early one morning, suitcase in hand. I can mention nothing more of the plot without giving too much away. Yet this is a novel full of secrets, many of which reveal themselves as the novel draws to a close. We meet the characters in this book at a distance, and they retain their privacy, may not always be rounded out. But it scarcely matters. This is an intriguing, poetic book which fully absorbed me.
Thinking of how rural Ireland is almost a character in the book put me in mind of Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands. This is a marvellous moment of armchair travelling. Schalansky was brought up in East Berlin, at the time of The Wall, where poring over the atlas provided her only means of distant travel. Beautifully mapped, her book takes us to fifty of the smallest and most remote islands in the world. Some are inhabited, some are the domain of academics visiting for months ar a time, some are uninhabited. All have a story to tell. It might be their geology, or a tale of how they were discovered. Or folklore, or a moment or two of history. This book will transport you into regions you never knew about, and like Schalansky, will never visit … except in your mind.
Some of these islands feature in Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland: How Imperialism has shaped Modern Britain.This book is essential reading – for Brits at least. Sanghera presents a wealth of material, examining the history of the British Empire and how it was acquired. Many of us were brought up to regard the Empire and what Britain brought to the countries it had dominion over as something of a triumph, something which all subjects should be grateful for. We were brought up glossing over what slavery means to all involved, whether as slave-owner or slave. The Windrush generation, racism, the continuing legacy of our attitudes to Empire all form part of Sanghera’s narrative. This book is carefully researched, and attempts to be fair. It gives much to think about, and much material to form the basis for thoughtful on-going discussion. Tough stuff, but also highly readable.
Let’s find a book set – at least partly – in one of those Commonwealth – formerly Empire – countries. The Last Hunt, by Deon Meyer. This is the first book I’ve read by Meyer, and I suspect it won’t be the last. Two parallel stories – the first involving South African cops Benny Griessel and Vaughn Cupido, given the thankless task of solving a cold case: the second introducing Daniel Darret, an African who after a chequered life has settled in Bordeaux. It’s only at the end these apparently unrelated threads come together. The characters, and the areas and worlds they frequent are well-painted and vivid, and the story, involving corruption in high places seems unsettlingly topical. Only the last chapter of all failed to convince me: and while this was disappointing, it didn’t stop me from feeling I’d had an involving and exciting journey along with the protagonists.
My next book isn’t really a crime story. Or is it? You’ll have to read Darke Matter: A Novel, by Rick Gekoski for yourself to find out. James Darke, retired schoolmaster and professional curmudgeon, narrates his story. His much-loved wife Suzy has recently died, wracked by pain in her last months. He lives alone, disapproving of everybody and everything, even his daughter and her husband – though he makes an exception for his grandson Rudy. His distress at watching his wife die encourages him to help her on her way to death through overdosing her, as he admits to his horrified daughter, though she comes to understand and agree. No spoilers alert here, though you might well wish to refresh your knowledge of Gulliver’s Travels, a book Darke re-fashions for his grandson’s entertainment. A perceptive, witty and moving evocation of love, grief, loss, and the fall-out from assisted dying.
Another whodunnit, which, being set in Ireland, links back to the first book in my chain, though not to this month’s starter. Snow by John Banville. This paints a richly evocative picture of 1950s Co. Wexford in Ireland. A miserably cold snowy winter; a country house peopled with a decaying family of Protestant gentry; a pub-come-shop; a cast of splendidly eccentric characters. This is Cluedo brought to life. Though so much richer. Here is a picture of a narrow and barren society, subservient to the authority of the Catholic church, and with strong memories of their not-so-distant battle for independence. The motives for the murder we learn about on the first page are more important than finding out who committed it. A rewarding read, being a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit.
Next month, the chain will begin with Peter Carey‘s True History of the Kelly Gang, a book which has unaccountably sat unread on my shelves for ages. Its moment has come!