Six Degrees of Separation: From Hydra to Purple Hibiscus

Goodness!  I completely forgot that today is Six Degrees of Separation day.  I’ll have to play catch-up.

This month’s chain-starter isn’t yet published in the UK, so I haven’t read it: Hydra by Adriane Howell

I gather something bad has happened to the heroine as the book begins, so I’ll start with Dolores by Laureen Aimee Curtis. Dolores is a somewhat enigmatic character who fetches up at the gate of a convent – pregnant. The nuns take the young woman in, and she adjusts to their life while her mind slips back to the years before: to the assignations in love motels, sometimes to life back at home, to a boy called Angelo. Life happens to her, almost without her input. The nuns hadn’t known she was already pregnant when she came to their door. She gives birth, and they name her son. What will happen to this confused young woman? We don’t find out. Perhaps this convent, full of mainly elderly and unworldly women will remain her home. Or not. Dolores’ life has been pretty grim so far and seems likely to remain so. Somehow, we as readers remain detached from her, as the author herself does. A strange, visceral book which kept me thinking beyond the time I turned the last page.

Let’s stay with – well, not nuns – but those who have chosen the religious life:  Victoria Mackenzie’s For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain. Two female mediaeval mystics, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe tell their stories in alternating short chapters. Julian is the better known figure, for her Revelations of Divine Love, written when she was an anchoress, enclosed in a tiny windowed cell abutting a Norwich church. Both she and the other figure in the book, Marjorie Kent, had visions. Whereas Julian chooses to see little, but see it intensely, Marjorie is very different. Illiterate and rambunctious, with little time for her husband and children, she loudly proclaims her visions of Christ to anyone who will listen, and indeed those who do not wish to listen. Both took risks. To go against current Christian orthodoxy, especially as a woman, risked excommunication and a painful death. In the book, and we cannot know if this happened, the two meet, and this unlikely pair make a genuine connection. Beautifully written, and quickly read, this is a book that will stay with me for a long time.

So to another woman, isolated from her professional peers simply by virtue of being a woman:  Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. While Elizabeth Zott, hero of this book, was fighting her battles for acceptance as an academic and chemist in the ’60s, I was a schoolgirl at an all-girls’ grammar school where achievement was expected, and the norm. All the same, our academic prowess when, post graduation, we entered the world of work was not always remunerated as favourably as that of our male colleagues. So this story of a woman who was disregarded while her research was nicked by her male colleagues was bound to interest me, as was her determination not to patronise her female audience when she was hired to do a TV cookery show. But … the characterisation was thin (EZ herself), or frankly unbelievable (her small daughter), and the males disappointingly stereotypical – especially the villains of the piece. As a page-turner it wasn’t wholly successful for me.I’m out of step.  Most readers seem to love it.

I’ve just finished Go as a River by Shelley Read (Whom I’ve met!  She came to an event organised this week by our local independent bookshop and spoke engagingly and with warm enthusiasm). Victoria lives in a small inward-looking town in Colorado – one that will have been covered by a new reservoir by the end of the book. Hers is a family of men, the women in her life having died in tragic circumstances when she was only 12. They’re either hardworking and grim (father), brutal (brother) or bitter and disabled (uncle). She is their housekeeper. One day, she meets an itinerant young man, a Native American, despised and reviled by the local community: racism is rampant . Falling in love with him changes the trajectory of her life, and is the story which makes up this book. In this account, we have the wild and rugged forest landscape which surrounds her town vividly brought to life, as well as the emotional life of Read’s characters. This is an immersive tale of love, loss and resilience. As a debut novel, it’s a triumph.

Victoria is only 17 when her story begins. Ana, in Dominicana by Angie Cruz, is 15 and living in the Dominican Republic with her family. Since the age of 11 she has been promised in marriage to a man more than twice her age. Love doesn’t come into it. This wheeler dealer, a Dominican now based in New York is her family’s best chance of emigrating there with Ana as the sponsor. New York as Ana finds it is not a city paved in gold, but a shabby flat in which she is more or less a prisoner with a sometimes violent and unpredictable husband. This is her story of her feisty struggles to make a life for herself, and gain some independence, while maintaining contact with her family in troubled political times ( the late 1960s). A good read, up-beat and engaging even when times are very hard, and a real insight into the struggles and compromises of being an immigrant with responsibilities to those who have been left behind.

Lastly, another 15 year old, whom we meet in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. Kambili is a Nigerian teenager who lives a privileged life with her brother Jaja and her parents. Her father is a successful businessman who is proud of the way he is able to support his community with his generosity. His devotion to his Catholic religion is however fanatical and more than a little warped, his expectations of his children controlling and cruel. Their home life is set against the turbulent politics of the time, and the contrast with their father’s sister’s family. They are in much more straitened circumstances, but surround each other with easy-going love. It’s the play between these two sets of attitudes that brings this story into being, and allows Kambili gradually to find her voice. A compelling and often uncomfortable page-turner.

Each of these books is linked by having as their protagonists women, isolated either by choice or circumstance.  Perhaps they could have done with reading next month’s starter book: Friendaholic: Confessions of a Friendship Addict, by Elizabeth Day.