It’s been a busy first weekend in November, which is why I’m a couple of days late for this month’s Six Degrees of Separation. This bookish meme, in which readers link together a chain of books, is hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.
November’s starting point is Sigrid Nunez’s novel What Are You Going Through.
I haven’t read this novel yet, but I have read Kate’s review of it, so I know what it’s about.
What Are You Going Through is about a woman who has been asked by a friend with terminal cancer to help her to die on her own terms. It explores what becomes a priority when faced with the end of life, and what can’t be let go of, alongside what constitutes family and friendship. Heavy stuff. I’m choosing Permafrost by Eva Baltasar as my first link in the chain.
Baltasar’s novella is about a woman whose daily thoughts include a will to end her own life. She is depressed rather than terminally ill, but her depression produces a similar drive to live, or die, on her own terms. Permafrost is darkly funny, exploring the tensions in families, and the long lasting impact of parenting choices. That’s sending me on to my next link.
I haven’t read Mommie Dearest, Christina Crawford’s memoir of growing up the daughter of actor Joan Crawford, but I know the stories about her mother. Joan Crawford was a big star in her day, but struggled with the pressures of fame. Her coping mechanism was alcohol and taking her anger out on her daughter. In a way, I guess, Crawford knew that her star would eventually wane, which is a sort of death sentence. This made me think of a novel that explores how people respond to the specific knowledge that they will one day die.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin is about a group of siblings who visit a fortune teller and each discovers the precise date and nature of their death. The novel explores how each of them deals with that knowledge, whether it’s packing their life with meaning, doing whatever they want regardless of the consequences, or living in denial of their certain fate. This idea of knowing your destiny in advance made me think of the true story of someone who didn’t know her destiny, and accidentally became the source of scientific advances in the treatment of cancer.
Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who, after a tumour led to hospital admission, had some of her cancerous cells harvested without her knowledge and examined in a lab. These cells were found to be unusual, in that they continued growing after removal from the body, in a way that enabled them to be used to develop treatments, not just for the cervical cancer that killed Henrietta, but for other diseases and for infertility, as well as being critical in the development of gene mapping. Known as HeLa cells, they represent the immortality of Henrietta Lacks. Rebecca Skloot’s telling of Henrietta’s story, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, explores the exploitation of Henrietta’s body without her permission, and the painful fight by her family after her death to regain control over Henrietta’s cells and their own bodies. Surrounding this pain and exploitation is the story of the incredible contribution one woman has made to scientific progress. For my next link, I’m going with another female contribution to scientific progress.
Madame Curie is a biography of pioneering scientist Marie Curie by her youngest daughter Eve. It’s not a book that I’ve read. Originally published in 1938, it has been reissued a number of times over the past 80 years, and documents Marie Curie’s life from her childhood in Poland to her scientific work in France. Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, shared with her husband Pierre and fellow researcher Henri Becquerel, for her contribution to research into x-rays and radiation. After her husband’s death, Curie became the first woman to become a Professor at the University of Paris and went on to isolate radium, opening up new treatments for cancer.
The final book in my chain is The Essex Serpent, which I’ve already included in two previous Six Degrees chains. This time I’m including it for its depiction of cancer and the death of an incidental character from it. At the start of the novel, Cora Seaborne’s husband Michael is dying of throat cancer, and Sarah Perry uses this event to draw a picture of Cora’s family life and the liberation she feels in response to her husband’s death. The novel is set at a time when cancer treatments were palliative rather than curative, before Marie Curie’s research, before Henrietta Lacks’s cells brought breakthroughs in treatment. Michael Seaborne’s horrible death is described by Perry without sympathy, and it’s a death that is completely out of his control, taking us back to the beginning of this chain, and Nunez’s story of a woman who seeks to take control through assisted dying.
My chain this month, then, is about our relationship to death, how we seek to control it, particularly when the bringer of death is cancer, but it’s also about families and the people who surround us on our journey through life. It could have been completely grim, but there are sparks of hope in there.
Why not join in? Can you create a chain of six to hang from the starting book? Head over to Kate’s blog to find out what other readers have chosen.