Six Degrees of Separation: From True History of the Kelly Gang to The Moonlit Cage

It’s the first Saturday of the month which means it’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is that Kate chooses a book to use as a starting point and then we have to link it to six other books of our choice to form a chain. A book doesn’t have to be connected to all of the others on the list – only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we’re starting with True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. I haven’t read it and it doesn’t really appeal to me, but here’s what it’s about:

To the authorities in pursuit of him, Ned Kelly is a horse thief, bank robber and police-killer. But to his fellow Australians, Kelly is their own Robin Hood. In a dazzling act of ventriloquism, Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel of adventure and heroism brings the famous bushranger wildly and passionately to life.

The title of the Peter Carey book immediately made me think of The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric (1). This unusual novel tells the story of Manticory Swiney and her six sisters who escape from poverty in 19th century Ireland to find fame on stage with their song and dance act, ending each performance by letting down their ankle-length hair. The book is not quite the ‘true history’ it claims to be, as the Swineys are fictional characters – but they are based on the real-life American singing group, the Sutherland Sisters, who really were famous for their very long hair.

And long hair is my next link! Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (2) is a retelling of the fairy tale, Rapunzel. Rapunzel, of course, is famously locked in a high tower by a witch and throws her long hair out of the window to form a rope that the witch can climb up and down. In Bitter Greens, she is given the name Margherita and her story alternates with the story of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, the real historical woman who wrote Persinette, the original fairy tale on which Rapunzel was based. Even if you don’t like fantasy, I think this novel is still worth reading for the fascinating details of Charlotte-Rose’s life at the 17th century French court.

Another book in which fairy tales play a part is Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville (3). This very dark and unsettling novel opens in 1890s Vienna with a psychoanalyst treating a patient who claims to be a machine, not a human being. Several decades later in Nazi Germany, we meet a little girl who is neglected by her father, another doctor, and entertains herself by remembering the fairy tales her nurse read to her – including her favourite, Hansel and Gretel. The two storylines seem unrelated at first but do come together towards the end! I remember finding this a very disturbing book, but also a clever one with some surprising twists.

Madensky Square by Eva Ibbotson (4) is also set in Vienna, where our narrator, Susanna Weber, is a dressmaker with a busy shop on the city’s Madensky Square. Beginning in the spring of 1911, Susanna keeps a journal in which she writes about the daily lives of her friends, customers and neighbours. It’s a lovely novel and I enjoyed getting to know all of the characters – I particularly loved Susanna’s relationship with Sigismund, a lonely Polish orphan. Including this book in my chain has reminded me that I really need to read more by Eva Ibbotson!

I’m going to stay with books about dressmakers and link to a non-fiction book this time: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana (5). In this book, journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon describes her trip to Afghanistan in 2005 in order to report on female entrepreneurs working in war zones. Here she meets Kamila Sidiqi, a young Afghan woman who started her own dressmaking business with her sisters and friends in an attempt to make money while also staying on the right side of the Taliban. Kamila’s story is fascinating and a real inspiration! She even opens a school to teach other women to sew, so that they can also support themselves and their families.

Back to fiction, now. I’ve read a few other books set in Afghanistan and I’m going to finish my chain with one that I particularly liked, The Moonlit Cage by Linda Holeman (6). I read a lot of Holeman’s novels a few years ago and enjoyed them all, but she seems to have stopped writing now. The Moonlit Cage is the story of Darya, a 19th century Afghan woman who escapes from an arranged marriage and flees through the Hindu Kush mountains to India. I loved the descriptions of Afghan life and culture, as well as finding Darya’s story quite moving. I still need to read The Linnet Bird, which I think is the only one of Holeman’s adult novels I haven’t read.


And that’s my chain for May! My links included: ‘true history’ titles, long hair, fairytales, Vienna, dressmaking and Afghanistan.

In June we’ll be starting with Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason.

18 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: From True History of the Kelly Gang to The Moonlit Cage

  1. Calmgrove says:

    The Granville and the Ibbotson interest me very much, I have to say, so I will have to check them out! Six Degrees always at some stage throws up titles I wouldn’t usually have occasion to consider. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      Madensky Square was my first Eva Ibbotson and my favourite of the two or three I’ve read so far. I must read more of her books soon!

  2. Margaret says:

    What a fascinating chain! Who would have thought a book about outlaws in Australia would link to book about a 19th century Afghan woman who escapes from an arranged marriage and flees through the Hindu Kush mountains to India! I particularly like the sound of the two books about women with long hair.

    • Helen says:

      I had no idea where this chain would lead when I started putting it together! The two books about long-haired women are very different but both highly recommended.

  3. Rosemary says:

    I enjoyed your chain – the Harristown Sisters book sounds great, and I’ve certainly never before come across anyone called Manticory!

    Madensky Square also sounds interesting, as does The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. I remember reading Dervla Murphy’s book about cycling from Ireland to Kabul, long before the days of the Taliban. The library copy included some photos she had taken of a world now long gone – I’d like to read more about life there in the past (though of course Dervla was writing in the 20th century, not the 19th) so I will also look for The Moonlit Cage.

    I’d never heard of any of these books, so thank you for bringing them to my attention.

    Also very delighted to find another Mary Stewart fan. I’ve not read as many of her books as you, but I’m looking forward to reading your reviews. My favourite of her novels so far is Madam, Will You Talk?

    • Helen says:

      The Harristown Sisters is excellent – and Manticory’s six sisters all have equally unusual names! The two books about Afghanistan are both fascinating, in very different ways. I learned such a lot about Afghan history and culture from them.

      Yes, I love Mary Stewart and only have two or three of her books left to read. My favourite so far is Nine Coaches Waiting, but Madam, Will You Talk? is a close second.

  4. Marg says:

    Bitter Greens was my first Kate Forsyth, but not my last. It is probably still my favourite though! Several other of these books sound really interesting to me!

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