Six degrees of separation: From ‘The Turn of the Screw’ to….

It’s the first Saturday of the month, and so it’s Six Degrees of Separation day. The rules of the meme are here. In October the starting book is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw which I confess to not having read. But I gather that it’s about a governess – and I have read about governesses, so off I go!

The first governess I thought of was Caroline Newcomb, who shifted across from Hobart to Port Phillip in 1836 to act as governess for the (in)famous John Batman’s family in the very early days of Melbourne’s settlement. She ended up in Geelong, where she met Annie Drysdale, and together the two women formed a partnership to run sheep on the the 10,000 acre Boronggoop property on the Barwon River as women squatters – certainly a novelty at that time. Their lives are described in Miss D. and Miss N. where Bev Roberts edits and annotates Anne Drysdale’s diaries.

Sometimes I’m a bit of a purist with my historical fiction, but I love it when a novelist does the research then subverts it completely. This is the case with Peter Mews’ Bright Planet, which takes its name from a real ship that often appeared in the Port Phillip Shipping News columns. It’s set in a Melbourne known as Bareheep in the early 1840s, complete with a mixture of historic and fictional characters, and like Robyn Annear’s Bearbrass , it’s a real hoot.

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries uses astrological principles as an organizing structure for her sprawling (and too long, in my opinion) book about the New Zealand gold rush in Hokitika. It’s a bit like a great big Victorian door-stopper of a book with myriad characters. I thought that it was technically clever, but just too long-winded.

Think New Zealand, and think Janet Frame. Owls Do Cry was her first novel, a thinly disguised autobiography, and it is often considered to be New Zealand’s first modernist novel. It’s a startlingly original book, dealing with mental illness and it still packs a punch after more than 60 years.

Speaking of owls, I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven is a quiet, meditative book about a young priest who, unknown to him, has only a few years left to live. He is sent to minister to a small Indian village, where Christianity, commercialism and the outside world are encroaching on the traditional myths and practices that the villagers share with him. It’s a beautifully written book, but a bit ponderous.

Not at all ponderous is Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing. It is a series of tales set around an Aboriginal mission in far northern Australia with the Mission mob, the Catholic clergy, trying to convert the Bush mob who lived just outside the Mission. The Bush mob move back and forth between the arbitrary strictures and efforts of the clergy and their own more grounded life outside. They are clear-eyed about the hypocrisy and smallness of these white priests and nuns, but they are also painfully aware of the degree of control that the mission has over their lives. It is imbued with a quick, cutting, deft wit that overlays anger and sorrow.

And so that brings me to the end of my chain. It seems that with the exception of one book, I’ve stayed mainly in the Southern Hemisphere this time!

7 responses to “Six degrees of separation: From ‘The Turn of the Screw’ to….

  1. Hmm, I think it’s going to be tricky to find a copy of the Peter Mews, but I shall see what I can find.
    I love Bearbrass, I get it out every now and again to check something and end up reading great chunks of it instead of getting on with whatever I’m supposed to be doing.

    • Robyn annear has a great podcast as well called “Nothing on TV” where she takes a newspaper article from the past and fills in the back story. All punctuated with the sound of champagne corks.

    • Finally! A terrific chain where I’ve read the majority of the books – that hardly ever happens! Lisa, the Peter Mews is terrific. Funny and strange and insightful. I’ll lend you my copy if you can’t find it.

  2. Nice chain! I haven’t read any of these but I do like historical fiction so it is nice to get some recommendations. I used to run across copies of I Heard the Owl Call My Name and am surprised to learn what it is about.

    • Yes – I Heard the OWl Call My Name seemed to pop up in opshops quite often. Haven’t seen one for a while though

  3. I tend toward contemporary mysteries and thrillers and don’t read enough historical fiction, so I appreciate your recommendations here. Plus I always learn so much when reading about books from “down under” (I’m in the U.S.). Thanks!

    • Thank you. It’s strange how sometimes the Six Degrees throws up ‘local’ (to me) books, when other months they seem to all come from overseas (to me!)

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