Six Degrees of Separation: from How To Be Both to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month (April 6, 2019), the chain begins with Ali Smith’s award-winning novel, How to be Both.

How to be both

How to be Both is a novel all about art’s versatility. Borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it’s a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a Renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real—and all life’s givens get given a second chance.’ (Goodreads)

I haven’t read this book but I’d like to sometime. I see that there are two versions: one begins with the contemporary story, the other with the 15th-century story. This reminded me of Carol Shields’ book Happenstance, two stories about the same five-day period – one from Jack Bowman’s point of view, and the other from his wife, Brenda’s. They’re printed in the same book in an unusual format of containing two books in one, either can be read first – then turn the book upside down and read the other story.

Happenstance

My next link is a bit of a jump – from the character Brenda in Happenstance I immediately thought of Brenda Blethyn, who plays Vera in Ann Cleeves’s books. One of these books is Silent Voices in which D I Vera Stanhope finds a dead body in the sauna room of her local gym. The victim, a woman had worked in social services – and was involved in a shocking case involving a young child.

Social Services also feature in Fair of Face by Christina James. Ten year old Grace is being fostered when her foster mother and her baby are found dead in their beds. Social Services are asked to work with the police, in order to question Grace and her friend Chloe, a child from a troubled family.

Another author with the name James, is P D James, also a crime writer. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is a Cordelia Gray detective story in which she takes on an assignment from Sir Ronald Callander, a famous scientist, to investigate the death of his son, Mark who had been found hanged in suspicious circumstances. Mark had left Cambridge University without completing his degree and had taken a job as a gardener.

My next link is to Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, set mainly in an exclusive and expensive girls’ school, Meadowbank, in England. Some new staff members have been appointed, including Adam Goodman, a handsome young gardener.

My final link is to another school, the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Muriel Spark’s novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Marcia Blaine is a traditional school where Miss Brodie’s ideas and methods of teaching are viewed with dislike and distrust. The Head Teacher is looking for ways to discredit and get rid of her. The girls in her ‘set’ fall under her spell, but one of them betrays her, ruining her teaching career.

Different formats, the name ‘Brenda’, Social Services, authors’ surname ‘James’, gardeners,  and girls’ schools all link How To Be Both to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Except for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie the books in my chain are all crime fiction and apart from How To Be Both I’ve read all the books in the chain – clicking on the titles takes you to my posts, where they exist.

Next month (May 4, 2019), the chain will begin with Jane Harper’s debut best-seller, The Dry.

Autumn by Ali Smith

Autumn

Autumn is the first of Ali Smith’s books I’ve read and at first I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The blurb attracted me – it describes it as ‘a breathtakingly inventive new novel, a meditation on a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, on what harvest means.‘ I didn’t find it ‘breathtaking’ but I did enjoy it.

I liked the beginning which begins with a stream of consciousness as Daniel Gluck, a very old man, ponders his life and his approaching death. The main focus of Autumn is the relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth Demand who first met when Elisabeth was a child and moved into the house next door to Daniel’s. We see their friendship at various stages in their lives throughout the book.

As I expected from the blurb Autumn is not a straightforward story, so whilst I wanted to know more about the Daniel and Elisabeth story I was quite happy to diverge from their story through the different sections about a variety of different themes from death, aging, love and of course autumn.

I liked the wordplay and references to many other books from Dickens to Shakespeare, the details about Christine Keeler and the Profumo Affair, the life, work and death of the pop artist Pauline Boty, and the accurate and amusing accounts of the frustrations of everyday life such as those describing Elisabeth’s attempts to renew her passport.

It’s both poignant and cutting in its look at modern life, how we got to where we are, and the mood of the country post-Brexit (that word is never mentioned) – the confusion and the misery and rejoicing, the insanity, and the division. It’s a remarkable book.

Autumn is the first installment in Ali Smith’s novel quartet Seasonal: four standalone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are), exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative.

Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962. She is the author of Free Love and Other Stories, Like, Other Stories and Other Stories, Hotel World, The Whole Story and Other Stories, The Accidental, Girl Meets Boy, The First Person and Other Stories, There but for the, Artful, How to be both, and Public library and other stories. Hotel World was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize and The Accidental was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Orange Prize. How to be both won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Goldsmiths Prize and the Costa Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Folio Prize. Ali Smith lives in Cambridge.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 5464 KB
  • Print Length: 243 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0241207010
  • Publisher: Penguin (20 Oct. 2016)

I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, for review.