Six Degrees of Separation – from The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to The Mill on the Floss

 

I’m sitting in a freezing cold departure area (I can’t dignify it by calling it a lounge) at Dublin Airport, waiting for my connecting flight home. The café, which is more of a hot beverage kiosk, is closed. There is a pillar that invites travellers to use three smiley face buttons to express your satisfaction with the facilities. I might warm myself up by hammering on the red sad face button later.

Meanwhile, to pass the time, I thought I’d do this month’s Six Degrees of Separation.

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I bought The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and the second book in the series from my local independent bookshop using a book token given to me by my mother in law. I enjoyed the easiness of the story but the whole white-man-writes-about-black-women thing was uncomfortable for me.

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My misgivings about Alexander McCall Smith’s books led me to read The Heavens May Fall, which deals with more serious legal matters and is written by a Motswana woman, but also covers similar general themes to those found among Mma Ramotswe’s cases – relationships, beauty and the rights of women to have a career.

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The feistiness of the main characters in The Heavens May Fall put me in mind of Trevor Noah’s mum as described in Born A Crime. She’s a woman who combines traditional beliefs with a determination to live life her way.

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Trevor Noah, meanwhile, reminded me of Tunde in Naomi Alderman’s The Power. Both men are determined to leave behind the narrow society in which they live and take their chances in the uncertain world of the media.

The Power is a novel that imagines a near future for humankind in which women gain the upper hand through a strange genetic quirk that jump starts a hidden organ in the female body which allows women to control or destroy at will. The book makes reference to artefacts dug up after some kind of catastrophic event on Earth that means society needs to start over again.

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This examining of artefacts that have no language attached to them and that have no writing that gives them context reminded me of the story of Mary Anning and the scientific examination of the fossils she found with an eye to trying to understand what life might have been like and what might have happened to change it so drastically. Deborah Cadbury’s book The Dinosaur Hunters makes the most of the subject to present an exciting account of a working class woman who knew more than many male scientists and was shut out of the debate about the dinosaur era because she wasn’t a man.

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Women having to pretend to be men in order to be taken seriously made me think of George Eliot and her semi-autobiographical novel The Mill on the Floss. I read somewhere that her brother refused to speak to her for twenty years after the book was published. Victorian ladies shouldn’t pretend to be men in order to publish books that air their private business. Pshaw!

That’s passed some time and it seems the hot beverage kiosk might have opened. I think hammering the sad face smiley button will be more satisfying than an airport brew, though.

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