Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 3, 2020

Six Degrees of Separation: from The Turn of the Screw, to….

This month’s #6Degrees starts with The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James.  I found it in a Paris bookshop that sold books in English, and read it on my travels in Italy. I like Henry James, but this gothic novella was a disappointment. Not my kind of book…


The Aspern Papers, published in the same edition and which I read (so appropriately!) in Venice was a different book altogether.  It’s a tale of obsession, that illustrates how easily moral compromises are made. I don’t have a review, but this is the blurb:

An anonymous narrator relates his obsessive quest to acquire some letters and other private documents that once belonged to the deceased Romantic poet Jeffrey Aspern. Attempting to gain access to the papers, the property of Aspern’s former mistress, he rents a room in a decaying Venetian villa where the woman lives with her ageing niece. Led by his zeal into increasingly unscrupulous behaviour, the narrator is faced in the end with relinquishing his heart’s desire or attaining it an an overwhelming price.

Thinking of being in Venice, and wondering whether it’s still a magical experience when it is beset by cruise ship behemoths, I am reminded of how I loved being in the San Marco Basilica viewing glorious ornate missals and that puts me in mind of The Book of Colours by Robyn Cadwallader.  It’s a wonderful story of a woman’s role in keeping her husband’s business afloat in the medieval era: he’s been commissioned to illuminate a Book of Hours for a very important client, but he’s going blind.  Gemma has to keep quiet about doing the work for him because that’s how things were, and that’s the reason she can only be the covert author of The Art of Illumination which she writes so that she can pass on her knowledge to her son Nick.

I recollect that Robyn is working on another novel… and a quick search in Comments reveals that she is “still working in the thirteenth/ fourteenth centuries”, and that there’s a connection with her previous two novels, so it is nice for us to have that to look forward to.

Talking of anticipation, my copy of Richard Flanagan’s new novel The Living Sea of Waking Dreams arrived yesterday. I have been waiting impatiently for this ever since I heard that there would be a new book this year, so thank you Readings! From the moment I received the email saying it was on the way, I nearly wore out the front door checking to see if it had been delivered even though we have one of these…

I started it last night, and it is quietly devastating as only Flanagan can be.  Only my feeble efforts to maintain a semblance of routine have stopped me from spending the whole day reading it, but I thought about the novel the entire time I was out walking the doorbell Amber. I know already that I will not be able to do it justice in a review…

The truth is, the better a book is, the harder it is to review.  Sometimes it’s impossible to capture the emotional resonances of a novel, or the awe I feel at the author’s ability to render complex ideas in words, or to depict a vicarious experience.  I felt like this when I was reading Pip Adam’s Nothing to See. Are we living in a simulation? Only a very clever author could make me contemplate even the possibility of that.

Which is why the most convincing dystopias have elements of the real world at their core.  I’m thinking of The Trespassers by Meg Mundell which has just been longlisted for the 2020 Voss Literary Prize.  As I said in my review, “the near-future in which the book set, is (rather like Rohan Wilson’s Daughter of Bad Times) not really the future at all.  The story’s timeline is only a few decades away, but the events that propel it are already happening now”.

Thinking of the Voss Prize, I’m reminded of the judges comments about the representation of older women in fiction, and I know that they were thinking of the women characters in Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar and The White Girl by Tony Birch.  If we didn’t know before the 2018 NAIDOC week theme ‘Because of her, we can’, we certainly know now that Women Elders are greatly respected in Indigenous culture.  And we don’t need Helen Garner to tell us that it’s certainly not the case in Western culture.  If you read the introduction to my review of Wolfe Island, you will see that this issue of representation has been explored in some depth at the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative blog.

Over at the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, Caroline Lodge has been posting all month about older women in literature. It’s hard to know how much traction this initiative has had, but the reasons for it are obvious: the depiction of older women tends to be stereotypical even amongst contemporary authors.  But that’s not a trap Lucy Treloar has fallen into…

Treloar’s character Kitty is just wonderful.  If you haven’t read Wolfe Island, get a copy.  Whether it wins or not.

Next month’s book is a wild card – we have to start with the book that ended a previous chain, and continue from there…

Thanks to Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best for hosting:)


  1. Wasn’t Wolf Island a starting point for a previous Six Degrees? I forget… if so, I’m sure you didn’t know we’d be starting with our last books for next month when you wrote this.


  2. Another enjoyable read, this chain! I’ve never read Flanagan. Should I get myself a copy of this newest one?


    • Yes, absolutely. But don’t read it until you can devote an uninterrupted couple of days for it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m a sucker fir novels with artistic themes so you’ve sold me on The Book of Colours. Now would be a good time to visit Venice – no cruise ships disgorging thousands of passengers for a start. But it’s not going to happen given the U.K. restrictions on travel.


    • Yes, it makes us feel very wistful when we see screenshots of empty plazas and museums and galleries…


  4. Great chain Lisa … I haven’t read Turn of the screw, and I must admit that the subject matter – or the idea of horror – puts me off, but I’m feeling I should.

    BTW I agree that really great books can be hard to review.


    • I have just spent *all day* writing my review of Flanagan’s new one, and even now, I’m afraid I haven’t done it justice…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Frustrating isn’t it, when that happens.


        • As I said to my neighbour yesterday, every review I write is merely an attempt to capture the writing of someone who’s a much better writer than I am or ever will be. They have written a book, the work of months or maybe years, and then crafted with the help of an editor. I only write reviews, here, by myself, at home in my library. All I have at my disposal is my experience in being a reader for decades. No wonder I sometimes feel defeated by the inadequacy of my words!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. The Trespassers is such a good book! Really resonates now. Did you know it won the @SistersinCrimeA 2020 Davitt Award for “Best Adult Novel” last week, too?


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