Six Degrees of Separation – From Yates to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before…

revolutionary-road

This month’s starting book is Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. This is a book that blew me away when I read it as part of the Great American Novel Quest a couple of years ago. It’s a book about failure – of individual hopes and dreams, of a marriage, of the American Dream.

Long after the time had come for what the director called “really getting this thing off the ground; really making it happen,” it remained a static, shapeless, inhumanly heavy weight; time and again they read the promise of failure in each other’s eyes, in the apologetic nods and smiles of their parting and the spastic haste with which they broke for their cars and drove home to whatever older, less explicit promises of failure might wait for them there.

The film can’t quite match the depth of the book, but it’s excellent nevertheless.

kate winslet in RR

It stars Kate Winslet, which made me think of…

enigma 2

Robert Harris’ Enigma. A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this story is set amid the codebreakers of Bletchley Park during WW2. A great depiction of the almost intolerable pressure placed on the shoulders of these mainly young men at a time when the course of the whole war depended on their success.

enigma 1

The WW2 setting reminded me of…

vertigo

Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. The book from which the famous Hitchcock film was made but, unlike the film, the book is set in wartime France, with the first section taking place in Paris just as the war is beginning and the second part four years later in Marseilles as it is heading towards its end. This gives a feeling of disruption and displacement which is entirely missing from the film, set as it is in peacetime America. For once, despite my abiding love for Mr Hitchcock, on this occasion the victory goes to the book!

vertigo-alfred-hitchcock-865414_1024_768

And thinking of Hitchcock reminded me of…

the birds

The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier. The title story is of course the one on which Hitchcock based his film of the same name, but my favourite story in this great little collection tells the tale of a recent (unnamed) widower, bereaved but not bereft. Frankly, he had found his wife Midge irritating for years. So he happily admits to himself, though not to the world, that her death from pneumonia was more of a relief than a loss. And suddenly he’s enjoying life again – until one day he looks out of his window and spots that one of his apple trees bears an uncanny resemblance to the hunched, drudging image of his late wife…

Up and down went the heavy axe, splitting and tearing at the tree. Off came the peeling bark, the great white strips of underwood, raw and stringy. Hack at it, blast at it, gouge at the tough tissue, throw the axe away, claw at the rubbery flesh with the bare hands. Not far enough yet, go on, go on.

That story is called The Apple Tree, which made me think of…

the color master

The Color Master by Aimee Bender. The first story in this excellent collection of modern folk tales is called Appleless, and has undertones of the story of Eve and the fall from grace. The quality of the stories varies but the quality of the writing is so high that it easily carries the weaker ones in the collection.

“…I did what the Color Master had asked, and went for blue, then black, and I was incredibly slow, but for one moment I felt something as I hovered over the bins of blue. Just a tug of guidance from the white of the dress that led my hand to the middle blue. It felt, for a second, like harmonizing in a choir, the moment when the voice sinks into the chord structure and the sound grows, becomes more layered and full than before. So that was the right choice.”

donkeyskinOne of the stories I particularly liked is The Devourings, which tells the story of a woman who married a troll. And that made me think of…

the shapeshifters

Stefan Spjut’s strange but rather wonderful The Shapeshifters. In many ways, this is a traditional crime novel set in modern Sweden – but in this version of Sweden trolls still exist in some of the more isolated places. There’s a folk-tale feel about the whole thing as if the fables of the old days have somehow strayed back into the real world. As with so much Nordic fiction, the weather and landscape plays a huge role in creating an atmosphere of isolation – all those trees, and the snow, and the freezing cold.

Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914
Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914

 

Thinking of crime novels set in Sweden reminded me of…

the voices beyond

The Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin. The bulk of the book is set in the present day, but there’s another strand that takes the reader back to time of the Great Terror in the Stalinist USSR, and it is this strand that lifts the book so far above average. This time of horrors is brilliantly depicted – no punches are pulled, and there are some scenes that are grim and dark indeed. Theorin doesn’t wallow, though, and at all times he puts a great deal of humanity into the story which, while it doesn’t mitigate the horrors, softens the edges a little, making it very moving at times.

Stalin poster

* * * * *

So Yates to Theorin via Kate Winslet, WW2, Alfred Hitchcock,  apple trees, trolls, and Swedish crime.

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

Tuesday Terror! The Apple Tree by Daphne du Maurier

Seeds of fear…

 

Daphne du Maurier’s collection The Birds and Other Stories contains not only the title story that Hitchcock turned into one of his greatest films, but also five other perhaps lesser known stories. So in advance of reading the full collection, I have randomly picked one to feature as this week’s…

TUESDAY TERROR!

Suddenly, for no reason, he was seized with a kind of fear, a feeling of panic almost. What if the smell filled the whole house through the night, came up from the kitchen quarters to the floor above, and while he slept found its way into the bedroom, choking him, stifling him, so that he could not breathe? The thought was ridiculous, insane – and yet…

the birdsThe Apple Tree tells the tale of a recent (unnamed) widower, bereaved but not bereft. Frankly, he had found his wife Midge irritating for years. A self-appointed martyr, she had always managed to make him feel guilty about how little he did around the house and how hard she worked, though he always felt she took on tasks that could easily have been left undone or left for the daily maid. She had always taken the pessimistic view of any piece of news and for years he had felt she sucked the joy out of life. So he happily admits to himself, though not to the world, that her death from pneumonia was more of a relief than a loss. And suddenly he’s enjoying life again – until one day he looks out of his window and spots that one of his apple trees bears an uncanny resemblance to the hunched, drudging image of his late wife…

This is a fine example of what du Maurier does best – creating a chilling atmosphere just bordering on the supernatural but never clearly crossing that line. Although the story is told in the third person, we see it unfold through the widower’s eyes, giving it the effect of an ‘unreliable narrator’. If Midge was as the widower saw her, then his happiness at her death is understandable. But how much did he contribute to making her what she became? We catch glimpses of the young woman she once was, trying to please the husband she loved and having her enthusiasm stamped on by this man who clearly looked down on her. Is the widower to be pitied or condemned? And is the story one of a ghostly haunting or of self-inflicted psychological horror brought on by guilt?

As the seasons wear past, the tree affects the widower more and more – its blossom horribly overblown to his eyes, while seeming to be admired by others; its fruit disgusting to him while seeming fine to his daily maid; the smell of the wood from a fallen branch that he burns nauseating…choking. And in all its oversized ugliness, it hides the beauty of the little tree next to it – a tree that reminds the widower of a girl he once knew, perhaps a little too well. At last he decides to do what he has been putting off for too long – he will chop the tree down…

Up and down went the heavy axe, splitting and tearing at the tree. Off came the peeling bark, the great white strips of underwood, raw and stringy. Hack at it, blast at it, gouge at the tough tissue, throw the axe away, claw at the rubbery flesh with the bare hands. Not far enough yet, go on, go on.

Daphne du Maurier
Daphne du Maurier

Supernatural or psychological, either way this is a superbly written chiller. Du Maurier uses the weather to great effect, as she often does, going from the contrast of sunny blossomy summer days to the bitter cold and snow of deep winter. She never piles on the horror – instead she lets the atmosphere build slowly and gradually, making the reader share in the widower’s growing revulsion. And the ending works beautifully to leave the reader’s spine a-tingling…

Fretful porpentine rating 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

NB This book was provided for review by the publishers, Little, Brown and Company.

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