I’m taking part in a new meme for writers and book bloggers based on Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy’s 1929 short story ‘Chains’ in which he coined the phrases ‘six degrees of separation’. Each month, WA writers/bloggers Annabel Smith and Emma Chapman choose a book and invite others to create their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book. Their inaugural choice is Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Feel free to join in and post a link to your six degrees chain in the comments section.
Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites was one of my favourite reads of 2013. I read it during an unseasonably cold November in Melbourne, but I could not bring myself to complain about the weather — not when Agnes Magnúsdóttir was bedding down each night in a cottage in with fish skin for windowpanes and walls of turf, a place where ‘blizzards howl like the widows of fishermen and the wind blisters the skin off your face.’
When I said something on social media about Burial Rites making me shiver, Amanda Curtin warned me that her novel, Elemental, was likely to do the same. So I read it during a heatwave in Melbourne in January and it sure did take my mind off the weather — but not just because it was set on the frigid coast of northeast Scotland where fish-gutting girls like Meggie Duthie could lose fingers due to the harsh conditions. Elemental was a book to savour, evoking reflection on big issues like remembering and the repression of memory, on fear, courage, love and forgiveness.
Elemental is a book I’ve become evangelical about, recommending it to everyone I know. I gave it to my mother, who said it had been a long time since a book had affected her so deeply. She even said Meggie Duthie Tulloch is up there with Anne Elliot from Persuasion as one of her favorite fictional heroines.
Persuasion is one of those books I’ve always been meaning to read; 2014 might just be the year I read it. I try to get to one or two ‘classics’ each year. In 2013, I read an abridged version of The One Thousand and One Nights, which I was interested to see referenced by Michel Foucault in his 1979 (English translation) essay ‘What is an author?’ when he spoke of “writing’s relationship with death” — specifically in Scheherazade’s case, “the eluding of death”.
I’m reading Foucault because I’ve enrolled in a PhD in Creative Writing. It’s more than 20 years since I was last at university, but back then I was reading Foucault, too: his History of Sexuality was a seminal (no pun intended) text for those of us enrolled in the Social History of Medicine, a subject that changed my life by leading to an interest in medical anthropology, which found me heading to Laos for six months, only to stay away more than six years…
Those years spent living and working in Southeast Asia continue to inspire my own fiction, and I read anything published in English by authors from Southeast Asia that I can get my hands on. My most recent find was Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s Sightseeing, a collection of seven stunning short stories set in Thailand.
Twenty-first century Thailand might seem a long way from nineteenth century Iceland, where this all began. But Burial Rites and Sightseeing have qualities in common: both describe inequalities and injustices without being didactic, both entertaining and absorbing books that also educate and enlighten.