Elly McDonald

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Review: The Silence of the Girls (2018) by Pat Barker – “I heard him before I saw him”

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“You know how European literature begins?” he’d ask, after having taken the roll at the first class meeting. “With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight.” And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad and read to the class the opening lines. “ ‘Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles… Beginning where they first quarreled, Agamemnon the King of men, and great Achilles.’ And what are they quarreling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war.”

The Human Stain, Philip Roth – as quoted in the frontpiece of The Silence of The Girls

Why did Pat Barker not title her intelligent, engaging and troubling novel The Silence of the Women? Because she tells a tale of girls, mostly, young girls taken as war trophies and held in sexual servitude by the killers of their families.

I’d heard [the enemy commanders’] plans for Troy […]. Every man and boy killed […] pregnant women to be speared in the belly on the off chance their child would be a boy, and for the other women, gang rape, beatings, mutilation, slavery. A few women – or rather a very few girls, mainly royal or of aristocratic birth – would be shared out among the kings […] I might easily end up living the life of the common women, dodging blows by day and sleeping under the huts at night […]

Briseis

Pat Barker, Man Booker-winning author of the Regeneration Trilogy, which tells of the human damage wrought by WW1, is not the first author to retell Homer’s Iliad in the imagined voice of Briseis, the young girl at the centre of the rift between Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the Achaeans (Bronze Age Greeks) and the armies’ most feared warrior, Achilles. Daughter of Troy, by Sarah B Franklin, precedes The Silence of The Girls, but I haven’t been able to find information about that book.

Other authors have deployed Briseis as a character in their fictions: Christa Wolf, in her novel Kassandra; Judith Starkston, in Hand of Fire (2014); Madeline Miller, in The Song of Achilles (2011).

The Song of Achilles – which missed the mark for me so completely I couldn’t read far enough in to meet Briseis – represents Briseis as being in love with Achilles’ loved companion, Patroclus. Best-selling author Marion Bradley Zimmer had a stab at Achilles’ story in Fire Brand (1987), where she presents Briseis as in love with Achilles.

Possibly the most widely recognized representation of Briseis in contemporary English-speaking culture is actress Rose Byrne’s film portrayal of the character in the Brad Pitt vehicle Troy (2004), where, again, Briseis is shown as being in love with Brad-Achilles. The 2018 BBC TV series Troy: Fall of a City features a Rose Byrne look-alike playing Briseis (I don’t who Briseis loves in this one).

In The Silence of The Girls, Pat Barker’s Briseis wonders “What will they make of us, those people of [the far future]? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys; the enslavement of women and girls; they won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps?”

Pat Barker tells the story of living in a rape camp.

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I’m impressed by this novel on multiple levels, although it took a while to grab me. The language is plain. So much literary writing at present is ambitious in its use of language and form, but Barker, speaking as Briseis, keeps it straight. Sometimes that can read flat. It also serves to make the occasional excursions into the supernatural – the appearance of gods, the workings of gods – startling, at first seeming incongruous. But Homer’s language is stark, and incursions by the gods are a fact of life in The Iliad, so: so be it.

I’ll say only that I’m unused to magical realism where the realism so lacks in magic and the magic is so matter of fact.

Another thing that startles is Barker’s occasional references to northern European physical attributes: Achilles’ silver hair, his cousin Ajax’s blondness, a doctor’s green eyes, a king’s grey eyes. Ethnicity in the ancient world is a contested area, but the Achaeans as described by Homer are not the dark-eyed, olive-skinned peoples of the later Mediterranean worlds. That said, it’s curious Barker chooses to introduce this element, particularly since the language her characters use is neither archaic nor contemporary but instead, faintly anachronistic, as if the writer is still immersed in the world of the Great War 1914-18 and British Imperialism, or perhaps is suggesting analogies.

Barker doesn’t describe Briseis’s appearance directly. From the comments of others, its plain she’s very beautiful: elegant but with (sorry) huge knockers. Her breasts announce her. (Really. It’s in the text.)

Homeric legend is more explicit: Homer’s Briseis is lauded for her golden hair, blue eyes and fair skin.

I found, when I did some research after reading, that the name “Briseis” simply means “daughter of Brisis”, just as the name of Agamemnon’s girl, Chryseis, means “daughter of Chrysis”. To borrow from Margaret Atwood, and The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s like calling a character “Offred” (‘Of Fred’), except with reference to the father as patriarch rather than the sexual master. Briseis could equally be “Ofachilles”, Chryseis “Ofagamemnon”.

Briseis’s actual given name, according to legend, was Hippodameia. My Greek is rudimentary, but I believe that might translate as “Horsegoddess”, which casts a wholly different light on Briseis’s symbolic role in The Iliad. (I see, too, that the Trojan hero Hector’s wife Andromache might translate as “man killer”, which likewise positions her differently, as a kind of Amazon – the Amazons came to Troy’s aid as allies. It could also translate as “manly fighting spirit”. After Achilles killed her husband, and her infant son was flung from the walls of Troy, Andromache was given as a sex slave to Achilles’s adolescent son.)

This is such an interesting book, and I do not want any comment of mine to denigrate it, but I think what I took away that troubled me most is this:

Briseis is attempting to author her own story. She is represented as telling the tale of her captivity many years later, having turned her back on the sand dunes of the Greek camp as a 19 year old, boarded a ship to a new life, and made that a full and fascinating life (by her own account): “Once, not so long ago, I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story – and failed. Now, my own story can begin.”

Good for her.

My problem is this.

Pat Barker tells most of The Silence of The Girls in Briseis’s voice. But there are things Briseis cannot know and cannot tell. So in the second half of the book, there are sequences told in the third person from the point of view of Achilles. These sequences are for me the most compelling and effective parts of the novel. These sequences – not least the visit by King Priam of Troy to Achilles to ransom his son Hector’s body – have an emotional charge that leaves much of Briseis’s narrative pallid by comparison. (Briseis’s voice does share the telling the Priam episode. But it’s Achilles’ perspectives that carry the charge.)

Is it the age old problem that the Devil has all the best tunes? That sociopaths are more compelling than victims? That the sins and sufferings of violent men are stories we are acculturated to attend to, that we can’t look away from violent men, though we turn away, time and again, from beaten women?

After an entire novel that purports to be a platform for Briseis to speak for herself, and her sisters, is this, in the end, what’s meant by The Silence of The Girls?

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Last word:

My favourite paragraphs from The Silence of The Girls:

There’s a story he once chased the god Apollo all over the plains of Troy. Cornered at last, Apollo is supposed to have said: “You can’t kill me, I’m immortal.” “Ah, yes,” Achilles replied. “But we both know if you weren’t immortal, you’d be dead.”

Nobody was ever allowed the last word; not even a god.


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All The Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr – how I learned to stop worrying and love the War (Doctor Strangelove moves in mysterious ways)

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This is not the review I prepared to write when I sat down a short while ago.

I have a friend, a novelist, who is skeptical about Reader Response theory: a literary criticism theory that focuses on how readers’ individual life experiences and beliefs shape their understandings of a text, as opposed to literary criticism that focuses on the author’s intentions, or the formal qualities of a text – crudely summarized, every novel a Rorschach Test, capable of being read in multiple ways.

My novelist friend is clear his intentions are paramount. His novels mean what he means them to mean. If readers take from them understandings that he did not intend, it’s a misreading.

I tend to differ. (Perhaps that’s obvious – I blog my individualistic responses. I gravitate to themes and issues that reflect my own concerns.)

I believe we will read the same book differently at age 60 than we did at age 16, or 30. We will read books differently depending on our emotional environment at the time of reading – what we’re dealing outside the covers of the book. Mostly I think of this in terms of life stages, but today I had an acute lesson in how what we take from a book can depend even on what’s happening within a given 48 hour period.

Lots of people deeply love All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. It won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was a National Book Award in the author’s native United States, a New York Times #1 bestseller (as the cover proudly proclaims).

I liked this novel. I liked it quite a lot. Some aspects of it I liked very much indeed. But as the final 50 pages counted down, I grew less and less enamoured. By the time I closed its cover, I was nonplussed. That night, cynical. This morning, irritated.

There was no question All The Light We Cannot See is beautifully written. For me, it was just that bit too beautiful, that bit too soulful, too sensitive. It made me long for a punk or grunge riposte.

Here’s my draft review, written at that time:

There are two types of novel, it seems, at present. In one type, the author is a ruthless god, killing characters who logic dictates must die, or killing just because s/he can. The other type is humanist, somewhat sentimental; hopeful refractions of humankind. This type tends to be American.

All The Light We Cannot See is a novel about WW2 written by an author from Idaho. It is indeed “Sublime” (The Times) and “Magnificent” (The Guardian). Oprah magazine likes it too. At this point, 100 pages from the end, its dual narratives are both peaking, its dual protagonists both in extreme peril.

I am confident the author plans to rescue them, or at least let their deaths have meaning.

[If you detect snark, you’d be right. I was saying the narrative line struck me as predictable – and implausible. I was suggesting there is a cosy fairy-tale at the heart of the handkerchief wrenching.]

I wish writers in this genre [the humanistic war epic] knew when to STOP, or when to strip it back: there were important points Doerr wanted to make in those last 53 pages [the post-War ‘Whatever happened to…” section], but for me they were 52 pages too many. [Man-Booker 2014 winner] The Narrow Road to the Deep North [by Australian author Richard Flanagan] had similar problems, in a somewhat similar project [in Flanagan’s case, addressing POW experiences in Changi and on the Burma Death Railway, then continuing to examine at great length what happened to his fictional characters afterwards]. To me it reads self-indulgent.

[This is a hard call. I’m certain both Doerr and Flanagan would say that the sections of their novels that deal with how their characters’ lives unfolded in the decades after the War is where it lives. They intend to examine the lasting impacts of war. In Doerr’s case, especially, his whole point is what lives on.

Me, I frankly wish the characters were left at a point of unpredictability. I wish we were left not knowing, required to use our imaginations to fill in the future – left, like the characters, displaced, facing an uncertain world. The ‘arguments against’ of course include the educative function of novels of this type (later generations don’t necessarily have the knowledge to imaginatively inhabit those spaces); the authors’ own preferences, their planned projects; and the outrage most readers would feel if these characters were sent out adrift – the t’s uncrossed, the i’s not dotted.]

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I see in American writing a tendency to look back to WW2 as “the last heroic age”. There’s a valid desire to ensure what happened is remembered, and to cast the events as fables, as warnings. A book like All The Light You Cannot See is actually extremely effective in presenting aspects of wartime human experience and historic episodes, obscure [in the Doerr book, the Allied assault on St-Malo in France, and the Schulpforta Hitler Youth schools in the Reich] and better known (The Narrow Road to the Deep North).

The turn-off for me is the tone: all that effortful profundity; the wise, sorrowful voice, the self-conscious delicacy. Yes, it’s elegant, but IMO it’s overworked and kind of smug, the literary equivalent of an “Oscar bait” movie, a Manchester By The Sea. As if we read it or watch it to remind ourselves of how sensitive we are that we are so moved by the tragedies of others.

Also, embedded in the noble soulful remembrance of times past stuff there’s a wartime romp involving a sinister German sergeant-major and a cursed diamond, and frankly I came to be more involved in that narrative than in the cosmic significance.

[That’s not entirely true. I enjoyed The Adventure of the Cursed Diamond, as I enjoy a Tin-Tin comic, or a Madeline adventure – the Ludwig Bemelmans children’s classics, not Proust – and I was amused. But the sequences in the book I found most affecting were those that traced the life of the young German, Werner Pfennig.]

The author IMO over-egged the “What you could have been!” waste of human potential till the novel came to read, for me, like a shaggy dog tale culminating in a one-liner: all that lost humanity transposed into a metaphor about radio and cyberspace communications – we/they as infinite ghosts in the ether. Violins played.

Indeed.

That was my draft review. What changed?

Here I was being a Grinch. The background was the lingering death of my sister and her husband’s nephew, who 48 hours ago was about to be taken off life support .

I did not believe in fairies. I did not believe in Doerr’s elfin blind heroine, Marie-Laure. I did not believe in her loving papa, her endearing (and miraculously healed!) great-uncle, her Mary Poppins housekeeper, her gently jovial mentor, her Man In The Iron Mask mysterious Resistance friend. I absolutely did not believe in her miniature intricately crafted plywood model of a town of 865 mostly medieval buildings (I could not for the life of me figure out scale). Not even as Magical Realism, I did not believe.

Then today, one hour ago, my sister texted. Wills is to be removed from his ventilator today, but not to die. He’s to be removed because now, it seems he will live.

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I don’t know if there’s an author who planned to rescue Will (refer above). I do know that for his family and carers, Will’s death would have had meanings; as does his life.


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Review: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (2018) by Andrew Miller

English-hussar_Elly_McDonald-WriterOn March 16 1968 Lieutenant William Calley ordered the men of 1st Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry of the 23rd Infantry Division of the United States Army to kill every person in the Viet Cong village My Lai.

At his court martial nearly three years later he claimed he acted on orders from his superior officer, Captain Ernest Medina.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is set in 1809 and centres on a massacre in the Spanish village Los Morales by British troops retreating from Napoleon’s forces. One key character is called Corporal Calley. Another is named Ernesto Medina.

The My Lai massacre trial caused a sensation in the United States, with some senior military personnel vehemently condemning Calley and Medina as rogue elements bringing the U.S. Army into disrepute; others, including conservative politicians, insisting Calley and his unit were justified in their actions; and yet others arguing Calley was symptomatic of American policy and was scapegoated as an individual.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is a meditation on the morality of war, the circumstances in which such a massacre might happen, who might perpetrate war crimes, and who should be held accountable.

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It is also a poetic and mystical travelogue. The Hebrides, the islands off western Scotland, were in ancient times reputed to be a place of sorcery and magics; a tradition presenting the islands and the Highlands, the Gaelic realms, as supernatural lives on in popular culture from Brigadoon to Local Hero to the contemporary hit TV series Outlander. The Scottish west coast is a portal, the Hebrides another world, its islands akin to the island in The Tempest, where strange music is heard: this is the dreamworld of Now We Shall Be Entirely Free.

In this novel, the British cavalry officer who is held responsible for the Los Morales massacre is Captain John Lacroix. John Lacroix barely survives the retreat and evacuation to England. He suffers what we’d now call PTSD. Long before he has any inkling retribution is pursuing him (“I am the War”, says Corporal Calley), Lacroix flees further, to Scotland, to the islands. In the islands, he encounters forms of healing magic: music, friendship, love.

Can John Lacroix be redeemed? Does he deserve to be? Did he deserve to be condemned? Is justice, what’s ‘deserved’, even relevant? Is fate random? Or supernaturally determined?

This is a tale where I genuinely could not predict the ending. I don’t normally spend a lot of energy predicting how narratives will resolve, but with this novel, I fretted. And I got it wrong.

“[H]e saw things etched on the sea. A woman in a white dress, turning like a star”, a woman who is a seer, a prophetess, a blindfolded goddess of judgement, who “dreamed her bed was on the sea and that she had looked back at the island and seen the house”.

I was taken by the leitmotifs the author embraces. The sound of the sea. The sound of singing. The constant references to singing, to the sea, to music, to language as song. Lacroix reflects that all Gaelic is one long conversation with the sea. He reflects that “these people, the Gaels, were a curious mix, rooted and practical, but living easily among dreams and stories and superstition, one ear always pressed against the night-world, or whatever it was, the correct name for that part of life people were forgetting how to address.”

The spiritual, the fantastical, death. The new gods – technologies, surgery, populism, the cults that spring up as conventional religion fails – and the old gods, the gods who ride sea cows, walk across waters, speak through waves and await in currents.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free looks towards the modern, but does not forget the old forms of address.

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