Books Magazine

Six Degrees of Separation in Books

By Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

burial-rites-978144723316901Norwegian Woodphoto 1Red Hook RoadThe BelieversTortilla Curtain

Thank you to writers Emma Chapman and Annabel Smith for inviting me to take part in their Six Degrees of Separation blog meme – I say no to these all the time but this one really captured my imagination and it’s been interesting reading other people’s too. The first book, BURIAL RITES, was fixed but from then on it’s six degrees of free association. I was inundated with ideas and actually found it quite difficult!  This is what I came up with in the end:

BURIAL RITES (2013) by HANNAH KENT was one of my Top Books of 2013. One of the things which drew me to it was the sheer unlikelihood of a young Australian author setting a novel in nineteenth century Iceland.

It reminded me of my surprise on discovering a book called NORWEGIAN WOOD by Japanese author HARUKI MURAKAMI (2000, Trans. Jay Rubin). The title refers a Beatles song I didn’t then recall, although it came back to me when I listened to it. It’s a tragic and macabre story of troubled adolescence, as is…

THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (1993) by JEFFREY EUGENIDES, the closest thing to a perfect novel I’ve read. (There are no perfect novels, of course.)

Another less bizarre but moving story of family life in the aftermath of death is RED HOOK ROAD (2010) by AYELET WALDMAN. I came across it by accident thinking it was about the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. (In fact, it’s set in coastal Maine).

For my money, one of the best books which actually IS set in New York is THE BELIEVERS (2008) by ZOE HELLER, an author I hugely admire particularly for her stance on the characters and empathy issue.  This is another family drama which plays out against the backdrop of someone dying. As will be obvious by now, I like dark subjects; I also enjoy novels which offer an insight into different cultures and ways of life.  The portrayal of Orthodox Judaism in this one was absolutely fascinating.

An equally eye-opening novel which has stayed with me is THE TORTILLA CURTAIN (1995) by T C BOYLE, in which a traffic accident in southern California randomly unites the fates of two couples: illegal Mexican immigrants and wealthy residents of a gated community respectively. This powerful story has a vivid sense of place but addresses universal issues such as class, consumerism, racism and moral justice.

And not that it had to, but the last of those themes brings us neatly back to BURIAL RITES.

I hope you enjoyed my Six Degrees of Separation in Books which turned out to have a Death and the Unexpected thread – these titles all come highly recommended.  Have you read any of them?

Anyone can take part – post on your own blog and use the #6Degrees on Twitter.  Here are the rules.


I’ll now be vacating the Literary Sofa for a couple of weeks to devote time to my family, my writing and a weekend in Barcelona. Enjoy the holidays!

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