Six Degrees of Separation in June

Books and reading

‘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’.

Bass Rock by Evie Wyld is the starting point this month. And, despite all the rave reviews, I’ve abandoned it for the time being – though not for ever, I hope. It’s about sisterhood, about survival. But it’s also about how women’s lives can be circumscribed, in ways big and small, by the men who seek to control them. And this is the link I chose to begin my chain.

Jill Dawson‘s The Language of Birds is a fictionalised account of a family nanny, murdered by Lord Lucan, a story that ignited the British press for months in 1974. Fictionalised, apparently, to protect the many characters in this story who are still alive. This book is a page turner. Mandy the nanny comes across as a warm, likeable person, despite the very difficult circumstances of her childhood, teenage years and young adulthood. Her friend Rosemary, who plays the part of slightly unreliable narrator for part of the story is the vehicle for recurring imagery about birds and the freedom they seem to enjoy.

There’s much to savour here about the portrayal of 1970s England, about class, about mental illness and domestic violence. It’s worth reading for this alone.

The next link is not a murder, it’s a massacre. And it’s a true story: The Patient Assassin, by Anita Anand. This book has as its core the shocking 1919 Amritsar Massacre, which saw hundreds of innocent Indian families shot at and killed or injured at the behest of Sir Michael O’Dwyer. Twenty years later, in a shooting that had been all those years in the planning, he himself was shot and killed by Udham Singh.

This is the story of that massacre, and of these two men. It’s meticulously researched and involvingly told, and gives a vivid and unappealing picture of the British occupation of India, as well as of the lives of Indians who had gone to America, and specifically England, in search of a better life. This book does much to explain the wider history of the period, and it’s one I’m glad to have read.

We’ll stick with death, but lighten the mood. Mrs. Death misses Death by Salena Godden. An allegory, a story, an anthology of poems – this book is all those things. Mrs Death is an unnoticed (of course unnoticed!) black woman, by turns a bag lady or a charismatic starlet. Wolf is also black, a lad who lost his mum in a Grenfell Tower- like fire. This young man is the person to whom Mrs. Death transmits her stories of heroes, historical figures, ordinary people, whole swathes damaged by war and famine. But death has to happen so life can go on. Lyrical, poetic, sometimes funny, this is a book impossible to categorise, but it’s life affirming too, and ultimately optimistic.

And – oh dear, death again, but this book is like the last, ultimately uplifting. Laura Imai Messina‘s The Phone Box at the Edge of the World. Here, in a garden in a remote spot in Japan, a disconnected phone allows the grief-stricken to send their voices into the wind as they talk to those they have lost. Yui lost her mother and daughter in the 2011 tsunami. Tasheki’s wife is also dead. Slowly, gently, these two forge a relationship, and begin their journey of healing together. Each chapter is interspersed with random fragmented memories, which enrich the story and ground it in reality, giving just a little grit to a tale that might otherwise be just a little too other-worldly. And apparently, this phone box really does exist.

That’s enough of death. But we could stay in Japan perhaps? Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa. Meet Sentaro, a bit of a loser who has a humdrum existence making and selling sweet bean dorayaki for his snack-shack. They’re not the best – he cuts corners. Then along comes Tokue, a spectacularly ugly old woman who begs him for a job, and finally he gives in. She introduces him to her highly superior sweet bean paste, and business looks up. He learns that she had been incarcerated in a leper colony for much of her life- hence her deformities – though she is no longer infectious. This is their story – one of confronting prejudice and your own demons, and in which they come to learn that being a useful member of society is not the be-all and end-all. A charming and lyrically written story, if perhaps a little sentimental for hard-bitten English sensibilities.

Here’s another book about a meeting between two people who ordinarily would never meet. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar. What a romp! I galloped through this story set in eighteenth century London, in which a decent-but-dull merchant – a widower, meets an indecent-but-colourful high-end courtesan. They’re connected by a ‘mermaid’, which was brought back on one of the merchant’s ships and is exciting the curiosity of Londoners. Gowar has done her homework, and the language, the scene-setting all ring true. This is a totally implausible narrative which I swallowed cheerfully and willingly. The perfect antidote to pandemic routine, despite shades of dark intruding towards the end.

I’ve just noticed another link in this chain. All the authors are women. No. That’s not true. Durian Sukegawa isn’t. But his translator is. Without Alison Watts’ efforts, I could never have read this book .

Six Degrees of Separation