The Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Every month a book is chosen as a common starting point and each blogger then links to six other books to form a chain. This month’s chain begins with Sally Rooney’s massively popular Normal People.
As I write this I’ve just received an email from a friend saying how much she’s enjoyed the television version of this book and how it’s sent her to the novel which she has then enjoyed even more. I find this very reassuring, given that I introduced one of my book groups to Rooney’s work through her earlier novel, Conversations With Friends and without exception they all hated it! I haven’t watched the televised adaptation mainly because I enjoyed the book so much that I didn’t want to risk spoiling it. I spent a large part of my working life with young adults of Marianne and Connell‘s age and I thought the novel caught the academic environment, its pressures, and the consequent dilemmas that students can face, perfectly. One regret that I do have about not having seen the dramatised version is that I’ve missed out on the Dublin settings. So, as compensation I’m staying in Dublin for my second choice, the second of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad books, The Likeness.
The Likeness is linked to Normal People not only through location but also through the fact that many of its chief characters are studying at university in Dublin. In some respects, French’s series could itself be seen as a example of six degrees of separation in as much as each succeeding novel is linked to its predecessor by the fact that a subsidiary character in the earlier story becomes the main character in the one following. In this instance it is Cassie Maddox who moves into the spotlight. Traumatised by her contact with a psychopath in her previous case, Cassie has transferred out of the Murder Squad and consequently is surprised when she is called to the scene of a killing being supervised by her boyfriend, Sam O’Neill. She is even more surprised when she gets her first view of the victim, a young woman who could be her double and whose ID names her as Lexie Maddox, an identity that Cassie adopted when working under cover. In an attempt to discover who killed ‘Lexie’, Cassie‘s old boss persuades her to resume her old disguise and integrate herself with the group of fellow students who are his main suspects. I don’t think this is the best written of the French novels, but because of its subject matter, its setting and its characters it is my favourite.
Cassie and Lexie, although unrelated are so alike that they could be twins. Consequently, my next link is to Audrey Niffenegger’s novel Her Fearful Symmetry. Niffenegger is much better known for her previous book, The Time Traveller’s Wife, but in some respects I enjoyed this one more. Identical twins, Julia and Valentina Poole, are left a London flat by their aunt on the condition that their mother is never allowed to cross the threshold. However, until the solicitor’s letter falls through the door of their suburban American home, neither Julia nor Valentina knew their aunt existed. Neither do they have any idea of the complicated personal entanglements that they are about to encounter when they make their way to London. These include the obsessive-compulsive crossword setter who lives in the flat above them and their aunt’s mysterious and elusive lover who lives below and who works in Highgate cemetery, which their flat overlooks.
Unlike a friend of mine I am not absolutely obsessed with Highgate Cemetery, in fact, I’ve never been there, however it is the location which forms the next link in my chain. Tracy Chevalier’s novel, Falling Angels, begins in 1901 with two very different families visiting the cemetery to pay their respects at neighbouring graves. Queen Victoria has just died and the country is opening up to all sorts of new ideas. One of the families is very much Upper Middle Class and determined that life should go on as normal. The other, from a lower strata of society, is more forward-looking and when the wife becomes involved with the women’s suffrage movement that becomes one of the major themes of the novel. Interestingly, when I read this with a book group that was made up of very independent women, they felt that the way in which the subject was tackled in this novel was pretty poor and so there are two links between this and my next book, Helen Fields’ most recent publication, These Lost & Broken Things.
These Lost & Broken Things is set, for the most part, in London in the early years of the 20th century and is primarily concerned with the fate of a young woman who is driven by poverty into a growing addiction both to gambling and to murder. The blackmailing blackguard for whom she works is very careful to keep his professional and home lives separate, so his wife, who seems to be a genuinely nice woman, is kept completely apart from his nefarious business activities. In fact, she is having her own little quiet rebellion by becoming involved with the suffrage movement. This forms one part of the link. However, the other side of the bond comes about because in neither novel do I feel that the suffrage aspect is fully developed. In Fields’ novel, especially, it seems to be tagged on rather than integrated. The book doesn’t quite hang together as a whole; not something you could ever say about the writer’s more substantial body of work set in Edinburgh, a police procedural series that begins with Perfect Remains – the next link in the chain.
Perfect Remains introduces DI Luc Callanach. Newly arrived in Edinburgh, having left behind a promising career with Interpol in Lyon, the half Scots, half French Luc finds it very difficult to settle into his new working environment. Forced to leave France because of an ill-founded scandal within his previous office, Luc is also concerned that rumours about his previous life may follow him to his new home. In fact, as it turns out, it isn’t just rumours that turn up in Scotland! The book also introduces DI Ava Turner, and later novels in the series concentrate as much on her as they do on Luc. Both of them are very engaging characters and I have to say that I much prefer Fields in this mode than when she ventures into historical fiction.
Fields is one of many crime writers to base their police procedures in Edinburgh and it is another Edinburgh based novel that forms the final link in my chain, Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. Set over two different time periods, the book tells the story of a young woman unable to find her feet in middle-class 1930s Edinburgh society. Uncomfortable among her peers, just like Rooney’s Marianne, and outrageous in the eyes of many adults, she is spirited away and the truth about what happens to her only becomes clear sixty years later when another young woman, Iris, receives a very unexpected letter asking her to offer her grandmother a home.
So, from one European capital to another and from one and comfortable teenage woman to another, my June offering for Six Degrees of Separation.