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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The Middle Ages Unlocked by Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania

There are so many really good books written about the Middle Ages, both general and specific which, collectively, are fabulous resources for students of history, writers and those with just a general interest in a long and fascinating period. This book came with huge and exciting claims by a well-known writer of fiction, so I was thrilled to get a hold of it and, even though it is slightly out of the period I am homing in on at the moment (the mid to late 1300s), I hoped it would provide a solid general overview of the previous two to three centuries.

In some ways, the book does exactly this. It covers roughly the eleventh through to the end of the thirteenth century and examines topics such as religion, literature, education, music, women and men’s roles, trade etc. However, where some general books also give very specific and detailed examples of the information they are relaying, sadly, this book did not. Or, rather, when it did, it was superficial to the point of not being very helpful. It was also very dry in parts. While I did enjoy some aspects of it, I have found other books on this period (eg. anything by the Guises, Judith Bennett’s works, Paul Strohm, Terry Jones, Alison Weir, Liza Picard, Barbara Hanawalt – just to name a few), to be more in-depth, better written and, frankly, far more useful as both starting points for developing an understanding of this era but also for advancing it. Where it did serve well was as a reminder of the most important and significant aspects of this era.

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Sunshine by Kim Kelly

This beautifully crafted novel set in rural Australia in the aftermath of WWI, is an incredibly moving story of loss, betrayal, masculinity, and terrible and entrenched bigotry. The story is told from three perspectives – that of two returned servicemen, Snow and Jack, and explores the expectations placed on them by themselves, others and especially patriarchal and white society – and a British nurse, the appropriately named Grace, who, married to an Australian returned serviceman, the eccentric and damaged Arthur, travels with him when he returns to his homeland and takes up the grant of land offered to all white soldiers. Only Jack, an Indigenous former Light Horseman is not given the opportunity to either own (by white laws) or work the land which is his anyway. Accustomed to being treated as if he has no rights, his service and sacrifice for his country so swiftly forgotten, Jack remains a drifter on the soil that is his.

Like Jack, both Arthur and Snow – the latter who most people give a wide berth – carry the internal wounds of their experiences and actions, the horrors to which they bore witness and played a part in – unable to quite readjust to their survival and the role that the land and the government now demands of them – never mind others. But what none of the men, who prefer to keep others at a distance anticipated is firstly, Grace, and the ability she has to recognise their pain and seek ways to heal them and herself, but also the land and the capacity it has to regenerate – not just what’s grown but those who work it. The land and each other.

I found this book achingly beautiful. Sparse yet so rich in its descriptions I found myself lingering on the words, the richness of the characters, the setting (which is marvellously represented), their memories and current interactions long after I’d finished the tale. The writing is sublime and the story that is told so important. It’s one that makes you squirm at the way the men, especially Jack, are treated – feel a deep shame that this happened – and the knowledge that it still does in parts. But it’s also such an important and unknown part of our history that needs to have a light shone on it. Kim Kelly does that and more and in relaying such a tragically-beautiful story, infuses not just sunshine on a dark past but imbues it with hope for the future. Simply superb.

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England in the Age of Chaucer by William Woods

I’ve had this book on my shelves for a while and finally had a great excuse to read it. Published in the 1970s, it’s an account of medieval England focussing mainly on the years between, roughly, 1320 and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Using the great Geoffrey Chaucer, his life and works as a broad lens through to which to examine the social and cultural changes that occurred, this is a wonderful and learned book that differs from more modern accounts in that it doesn’t shy away from being poetic itself or making some assumptions – something which I quite enjoyed. It also quotes extensively from Piers the Ploughman, Chaucer’s works and other poetry and treatises of the era to support various arguments and facts.

Each chapter concentrates on either a different stratum of society – peasants, merchants, writers etc – or events, using these to explore the huge social changes that were occurring, prior to, but hastened by the advent of the Black Death and the enormous loss of life and thus workers, priests, administrators, and other social roles it facilitated. Giving rise to questions about class, purpose and even God (remembering this was the time of the great schism in the church and two Popes – one in Rome and the other in Avignon), commoners began to demand more rights, the merchant class began to rise swiftly as wealth changed from being exclusively in the hands of landholders to being in that of producers and distributors, and the status quo that had been extant for hundreds of years began to crumble. England was at endless war with France and other regions and while its sorties on land and at sea were at first successful, earning England its various nobles a mighty reputation, as the century wore on, it lost more battles than it won, gained more debt than power and swiftly lost its reputation as a formidable power. Yet, it was the commoners who suffered and suffered significantly.

The chapter devoted to the plague and the transformations it wrought is excellent as is the one on the change from bellicose or religious poetry to pieces focussed on courtly love and how these influenced perceptions of sex and gender. Of course, the role of men of all classes especially is scrutinised though, having been written in the 1970s, the book does suffer from a lack of examination of the role women played in love, war, sickness, health and marriage.

Finishing with chapters devoted to the Peasant’s Revolt during the early years of King Richard II’s reign, and looking closely at cause and effect, the book is nonetheless a lovely addendum to many of the other books written about this incredible period in not just British history, but European as well. Thoroughly enjoyable and filled with titbits of information and dare I say, interpretation of these, not readily available in other sources.

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The Wealth of England: The Medieval Wool Trade and its Political Importance 1100-1600 by Susan Rose

If any had told me a few years ago that there would come a day when I would be completely riveted by a book on sheep and the complexities of the medieval wool trade, I would have told them to go soak their heads and laughed. But they would have been right.

Purchasing this book as research towards one I’m about to start writing (fiction), I confess I opened it with some reluctance. I mean, how interesting can such a dry subject be? Well, it turns out that in the hands of Susan Rose, it’s a fascinating subject. Remaining within the temporal parameters she’s set, Rose explains the maintenance of sheep, different breeds, regions, the production and trading of wool in England and across its major trading partners during different and very fraught periods. Through various reigns, wars, plague, and maritime disasters, markets, The Company of Staple, politics, the demands of the Crown, excise, smuggling – the role of sheep and wool in these as well as Crown finances, Rose takes the reader on a journey, exploring English dominance of the wool trade and then its decline as well as the court’s reliance on wool to rescue and/or support it in various ventures. Personal reputations and fortunes rose and fell, risked on wool and the flock upon which it depended. The various trades associated with wool, such as broggers, to the washing of fleeces and then those sorting the fleeces are explained, as are the handling and administrative tasks associated with such a multifaceted business.

But it’s the politics and personal stories of those who made some very successful livings from wool, cloth and the related industries that are the most absorbing. As well as how wool came to not only define English policies and politics, but is even to this day, an important parliamentary symbol as it’s regarded – rightly and wrongly – as having created England’s wealth. The truth, as Rose is at pains to explain, is that English wool – as a much-in-demand product for many centuries, made select people – farmers and merchants – at certain times in history, very rich and even saved a King by providing his ransom and the Crown from bankruptcy during wars. But did it make a nation rich? Unlikely. It was also responsible, as more and more landholders enclosed acres in order to run sheep, for the eviction and thus dispossession of ordinary folk. Sheep and wool may have elicited excitement from some by allowing them to transcend the ranks of their birth through the accumulation of wealth and thus power, but because of these people, wool and sheep also came to symbolise the deep resentment of the working poor at the way they were disregarded and discarded when there was money to be made.

This book surprised me in the best of ways and I am so glad I read it. Beautifully written, really well researched with an astounding number of sources, it is a terrific addition to the history of not just trade in England, but to the complex role sheep, wool and merchants played in England’s political and social history.

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