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 Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. I haven’t read it, but here’s what it’s about:
Everyone tells Martha Friel she is clever and beautiful, a brilliant writer who has been loved every day of her adult life by one man, her husband Patrick. A gift, her mother once said, not everybody gets. So why is everything broken? Why is Martha – on the edge of 40 – friendless, practically jobless and so often sad? And why did Patrick decide to leave?
Maybe she is just too sensitive, someone who finds it harder to be alive than most people. Or maybe – as she has long believed – there is something wrong with her. Something that broke when a little bomb went off in her brain, at 17, and left her changed in a way that no doctor or therapist has ever been able to explain.
Forced to return to her childhood home to live with her dysfunctional, bohemian parents (but without the help of her devoted, foul-mouthed sister Ingrid), Martha has one last chance to find out whether a life is ever too broken to fix – or whether, maybe, by starting over, she will get to write a better ending for herself.
It can be hard to find that all-important first link when the starting book is one you haven’t read, so I often take a word from the title for inspiration. In Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1), ‘Sorrow’ is the name Tess Durbeyfield gives her baby son. I won’t tell you why, except that the circumstances of his birth are not very happy. Poor Tess has very little happiness in her life at all; this is a heartbreakingly bleak novel, but one that I loved. Many of Hardy’s books have been adapted for film and television and the edition of Tess I read is a tie-in with the BBC adaptation from 2008 – which has a screenplay written by the author David Nicholls, whose most recent book is coincidentally called Sweet Sorrow.
But that’s not my next link! The same adaptation starred Gemma Arterton as Tess, who also played Sister Clodagh in the BBC’s version of Rumer Godden’s novel Black Narcissus (2) in 2020 – and that’s the next book in my chain. Black Narcissus tells the story of a group of Anglican nuns who set out to establish a new convent in an abandoned palace in Mopu, high in the Himalayas. It’s the only Rumer Godden book I’ve read so far, but I loved the atmosphere she created and the way she wrote about the tensions between the nuns as their repressed feelings and desires rose to the surface in the isolation of Mopu. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her novels.
Another book that features a nunnery is The Lady Agnes Mystery by Andrea Japp (3). I read this a few years ago for the Women in Translation month that takes place every August – it’s a French historical crime novel translated into English by Lorenza Garcia. The story is set in the Perche region of France in 1304 and follows the adventures of Lady Agnes de Souarcy, a young widow who is arrested for heresy by the Inquisition and becomes embroiled in a series of poisonings taking place at nearby Clairets Abbey. This was an entertaining read but the introduction of another storyline involving a secret prophecy gave it too much of a Da Vinci Code feel for my taste. This edition of the book only contains Volume 1 of the mystery; there is a sequel, Volume 2, which I haven’t read and probably won’t.
The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat (4), is another French novel I read in translation for an earlier Women in Translation month. The translator this time is Adriana Hunter. In this book, a young archaeology student sets out to discover the truth about her mysterious great-uncle Daniel, the author of a series of adventure novels known as The Black Insignia. This was a short novel, which I think was probably aimed at younger readers. I found it quite an interesting, unusual read, but the way the dialogue was written spoiled it for me – no quotation marks and no breaks between sentences to indicate who was speaking. Why do authors do it?
By Gaslight by Steven Price (5) is another book where the author has chosen not to use punctuation correctly. Again, this irritated me because this was otherwise a fascinating novel! Set in the 19th century, it follows an American detective who travels to London in pursuit of a mysterious criminal known only as Edward Shade. It’s a very autumnal novel and in my review I said the following: “…not only are gaslights mentioned frequently, the whole novel feels misty and murky and everything seems to happen either at night or in the fog and rain.”
Well, here we are at the beginning of June, the start of summer, and hopefully we won’t be seeing too much mist, fog and rain for a while yet! So, for my last book (and I know this is a bit of a tenuous link), I have chosen something more appropriate to the season: Long Summer Day by RF Delderfield (6). This is the first in Delderfield’s A Horseman Riding By trilogy, a wonderful family saga set in a farming community in rural Devon during the first half of the 20th century. I loved all three books and am hoping to read more by Delderfield soon.
And that’s my chain for June! My links have included ‘sorrow’, Gemma Arterton, nuns, women in translation, punctuation (or lack of it) and seasons.
In July we’ll be starting with Wintering by Katherine May.