Daily Archives: October 2, 2021

Six Degrees of Separation: from ‘The Lottery’ to…

First Saturday of the month, and so it’s Six Degrees of Separation day. To find out how it works, please check out Booksaremyfavouriteandbest where Kate hosts this meme. Basically, Kate chooses a starting book, then you think of other books that lead off from it. This month, it was not a starting ‘book’ but instead a short story: ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson. As usual, I haven’t read it, so I’m riffing off the idea of a lottery.

A rather attractive montage of book covers don’t you think?

Well, life is a bit of a lottery I suppose, full of ‘what ifs’ and sliding door moments. Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual takes the historical fact of fifteen children who died when a Woolworths store was bombed in a V-2 attack in London during November 1944. But instead of killing them off in the opening pages, he fictionalizes five of these children and lets them live- in fact, they weren’t even in the store- then follows them throughout their very ordinary lives. It’s a bit like the Seven-Up series but instead of dealing with real people, it’s all imagination. (My review here).

Well they didn’t really die in that book, but in Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, Ursula dies multiple times, each death marked by the appearance of snow before darkness falls. She is strangled by her umbilical cord at birth: or she is not. She catches Spanish influenza: or she does not. She is beaten to death by a brutal husband: or she is not. She is killed in an air-raid attack during the Blitz: or she is not. All a bit of a lottery, really. (My review here)

Elizabeth Marsh, an otherwise completely anonymous but real-life woman, had just the one life but lived it as part of a family that lived in the Caribbean, the Americans, Britain, France, Spain Italy, Brussels, Hamburg, Menorca and Madiera, India, New South Wales, Marrakech, Tunis, Cairo, Sierra Leone and the west coast of Africa. The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh, written by noted historian Linda Colley, is history in its own right, with much to say about mobility, networks, sea-consciousness and the British navy, trade and the intersection of the domestic and intimate with the commercial. (My review here)

But then we have the photographer Amory Clay in William Boyd’s Sweet Caress who is completely imaginary. I must confess that the first thing I did after finishing this book was to jump onto Google to see if there ever was a female photographer called Amory Clay. That’s how convincing this book was, with its mixture of real characters and events. I couldn’t tell whether I had just read a fictionalized biography or whether the whole thing was Boyd’s creation. (My review here)

So how about someone who is real and imaginary? Step forward, Elizabeth Cook, wife of explorer James Cook in Marele Day’s Mrs Cook: The Real and Imagined Life of the Captain’s Wife. The book is organized around a fairly large collection of existing Cook artefacts which, from the the notes at the back of the book, are located in various museums, libraries, churches and parks across the world. Some of them are documentary, but several of them are domestic objects like drinking glasses, teapots, fans. She uses these real-life objects as the tethering posts to which she attaches her fictional narrative, complete with conversation and internal speech. The narrative unfolds chronologically, with each chapter named for the object which appears somewhere in that chapter. (My review, not completely laudatory, here)

And why not finish with a fictionalized history of a real place- my own much-loved Melbourne, known instead by an earlier suggested name Bareheep, complete with walk-on appearances by John Fawkner, John Batman, and Aboriginal Protector Mr Le Soeuf, as well as a slew of fictional characters. In best Voss-meets- Monty-Python tradition, Bright Planet by Peter Mews is an irreverent romp through a young, bawdy town on the edge of the unknown. It’s not true but it’s very carefully researched and, in its way is a critique of colonialism and imperial masculinity. But don’t let that put you off: dammit- it’s just downright good fun. (My review here)

The appeal of lotteries is ‘what if’ and ‘if only’. In my meandering way, I’ve chosen books that play with the idea of chance and circumstance, fact and imagination.