I don’t know why I waited so long to read this book, especially because the Iliad and the myths and plays about the gods, men and women involved in the Trojan War are among my favourite reads. Then, of course, there is Madeline Miller’s sublime, Song of Achilles. Yet, Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls manages to do what few of these other creative works have done – take us into the heads and hearts of the women who, as a consequence of war and men’s hubris, greed and toxic masculinity become, to use that heartless, revolting term “collateral damage.”

In Silence of the Girls, Barker tells an ancient story in modern and sparse prose, yet without sacrificing poetry and depth.  The ten-year long Trojan War is told mainly through the eyes of one of the female “spoils”, the princess, Briseis, who is awarded to the great hero and demi-god, Achilles, after her home is sacked. If you’re familiar with the Iliad, you know what happens to both her and the man who claims her. After some time, King Agamemnon, who sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, to launch the thousand ships, demands Briseis for himself. This happens when he is forced to give up his female prize (the priestess, Chryseis) to end a terrible plague wreaking havoc in the Greek camp. As a consequence, a sulking Achilles, publicly deprived of his “prize”, and with his ego bent and honour trampled upon, refuses to fight any longer and withdraws from battle. The Greeks, who after nine years at war were close to victory, begin to lose ground. And so, the two leaders of men, Achilles and Agamemnon, very nearly bring the Greeks and their allies to the point of destruction – over a girl. 

Well, it’s this girl (and others) who is finally given a voice and who describes what it was like for these women who survived the sack of their cities and murder of their families only to be claimed by the very men who committed the atrocities. Not merely objectified as prizes, slaves, and kept for sexual gratification, they suffer in ways the men either don’t understand or remain wilfully ignorant to – all against a backdrop of horrific bloodshed and loss. They also suffer in relative silence, knowing articulating their fears, their grief and anger, will not only put them in danger but make their situation (and that of the women who share it) immeasurably worse. 

The strength this takes is never openly portrayed, but it’s there with every word, every action, every visceral description of what is done to them and what they bear witness to. This is a powerful novel about war, yes, that brings to life one of western culture’s most enduring myths and the heroes that colour it, but it’s so much more and so much richer. In giving voice to those we’ve never heard before, by portraying their situation, the daily grind for survival, the bonds that are forged, even among enemies, the threads of understanding that are woven into the everyday, the sheer bravery and grit of these women, what was once a two-dimensional (and stunning) tale is given a third and extraordinary dimension. It brings the horror of the Trojan War to life in ways few renditions do and pictures suffering in such stark prose, it is gut-wrenching yet also, strangely, hope-filled as well. Courage comes in all guises and in this novel, it’s that which occurs in the camps, among the dispossessed and brutalized that is sung.

Powerful, enduring, a classic. Will stay with me for a long, long time.

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Circe by Madeline Miller

I had been meaning to read this book ever since I first heard about it last year and I am kicking myself it’s taken so long, but then also glad I was able to delay the pleasure.

Circe is a beautifully written and structured novel about the Titan nymph, Circe. Daughter of Helios, the sun-God, and related to all the powerful beings in the Titan universe who’ve been subjugated by the mighty Olympians, Circe is nonetheless best known from Homer’s Odyssey, as the witch who turned Odysseus’ men into swine, delaying his already long and arduous journey back to Ithaca further (not nearly as much as others – including his own crew’s foolhardiness and greed and his own amor – would subsequently do).

Commencing while she’s still “young” (by immortal standards), the reader follows her story from a rather neglected and rejected junior member of a pantheon of almost-forgotten gods to a powerful wielder of magic in her own right years later. Barely noticed by her family, despite doggedly following her father around, one compassionate act separates her literally and metaphorically from the rest of her scions. Offering succour to the Titan Prometheus, who is about to be punished for daring to give fire to man, what Circe doesn’t expect when she confesses to her deed, is the way in which her world will be turned upside down.

Exiled to a remote island, over time, Circe finds that being alone doesn’t necessarily equate with loneliness. Honing her powers, teaching herself new ways of conjuring magic, Circe begins to grow in strength. When visitors come to her island, she is able to not only put her new skills to the test, but ensure justice is served – on her terms.

But it’s when the great trickster, Odysseus and his crew, wash up on her shores that Circe’s abilities to remain distant from those she encounters and the results of the spells she casts is tested. Seeing something both recognisable and repellent in Odysseus, she manages to keep him by her side long enough to not only learn about him, but change the conditions of her exile forever.

Understanding that Circe has used her ‘son’ to further her own ends, the goddess Athena swears vengeance and binds Circe to an impossible condition. But Athena hasn’t reckoned on how Circe’s experiences have not only changed her, but honed her into a formidable enemy. Locked in their enmity, neither Circe nor Athena, are quite prepared for what the fates have in store for them and those they love…

Flawed, riddled with contradictions and possessed of an ability to recognise and at least work upon her weaknesses, Circe is both a heroine and anti-heroine for the ages. Alternately cruel and kind, loyal and deceitful, she is a magnificent character and, for a goddess/witch/nymph, so very human. True to the myths of old, so are all the Titans and Olympians that appear in the book – their foibles and shortcomings are on grand display making them both larger than life and impossibly human. Against this, many of the great myths and their leading players take the stage, moving in and out of Circe’s remote life, leaving their mark on her and on the reader. The recognition, of not just mythic heroes and villains creates a deep frisson – not just because of the qualities they display and the commentary they make on the human condition, but because they are at once familiar and strange. This makes the emotional heft of the novel enormous.

I can’t speak more highly of this outstanding book. I read it a couple of weeks ago, and it is still resonating and will for a long time to come.

For lovers of the Greek myths, the great epic tales of old and for those who appreciate a superbly written narrative.

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