Elly McDonald

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I Know Who You Are (Se Quien Eres, Spanish TV series 2017) – 9 February 2019

Se_Quien_Eres_Elly_McDonald-Writer

A man lurches down a road. Blood streams down his face. Something awful has happened, but he can’t remember.

The 10-part Spanish TV series I Know Who You Are (Se Quien Eres) is clever, alarming and moving, with beautifully scripted – and acted – dialogue between parents and children, siblings and cousins, lovers, colleagues. Let’s get that out of the road (so to speak): watch this series if you can.

For my purposes, the interest lies in its themes.

Can we ever truly “know” who another person ‘is’? If so, do we ‘know’ instinctively, or through long experience? Is love the gateway to ‘knowing’?

On a pragmatic level, in this scenario, is the amnesia feigned? If not, is it possible that losing memory can in effect re-set a man’s ethics? Can a bad man who can’t remember who he is, become good?

Was Elias a “bad” man? Or was he a reasonable man who did the best he could with his circumstances, in a compromised world?

Is human nature essentially “good”, or are we born wired to different moral frequencies?

Are we born innocent, the famed tabula rasa (blank slate) of philosophy? If experience is erased, do we recover innocence?

If we recover our memories, do we reclaim our guilt?

Elias’s most immediate problem is that his crashed car contains his niece’s cellphone and traces of her blood. And his niece is missing.

Under the Spanish investigative and legal system (which is unlike the legal systems I’ve encountered), he is immediately charged with her murder.

Almost every person in this series is a lawyer, ranging from Elias himself to high court judges (Elias’s wife) to law students (including the missing girl). A given in this moral universe is that lawyers are despicable.

Some law firms are corrupt (but successful and high profile), others start relatively idealistic (but shambolic, a joke, out of their depths).

So at another level, I Know Who You Are is an indictment of Spanish institutions, the Spanish establishment, and of the privileged classes.

Is it just white privileged people who are, arguably, born bad? Hard to say, as no ethnicities appear other than white Spaniards, and the poor are all but invisible (glancing glimpses in late episodes).

The family in Spanish culture is an obvious metaphor for various ties that bind.

We have groups of affiliation, the strongest and most traditional being the family. (Others being social class, gender, ethnicity, profession…) Does ‘for the family’ justify any action? What does it mean to say, “I know who my family is?”

It is not a shock to hear at one point a reference likening family to “mafia”. Or to see a jailed family member behave like a mafia don. It’s not a shock that this family’s home looks and functions like a bunker.

On a literal level, does ‘family’ extend to blended families? Are step-siblings our brothers and sisters? Are step-cousins even relatives? What are our obligations to those not of our blood within the extended ‘family’?

It’s no coincidence the character who symbolizes innocence in this scenario is an orphan.

Family becomes a metaphor for community, and for society more broadly. Margaret Thatcher famously said, “There is no such thing as society”. She meant, ‘There are only individuals making choices in their self-interest as best they see it in their circumstances.’

I Know Who You Are is an acting out of Thatcherite philosophy.

It asks the questions, What are our obligations to those outside our affiliation groups? To human beings broadly?

Do we have an obligation to behave like a decent human being, even if we suspect we are not?

Se_Quien_Eres_2_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Alex Monner as Pol, the extraordinary Blanca Portillo as Alicia, Noa Fontanals as Julieta, Francesc Garrido as Elias

There is a Series 2.

 

 

 

 


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The shark with my name on it

It’s edging
into the narrows
between the reef and rocky outcrops.
It inserts its proboscis
its probe
and smiles that smile that is not
a smile.
The shark with my name on it
quivers with instinctive
connective drive
Its pale planetary
eyes dilate.
Sensing my proximity
the shutters come down
nictitating membrane.
Better than an eye roll
a full body twist
a wink that says
silently
I’ve got your number.

shark_elly_mcdonald_writer


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Another revolution (31 December 2018)

You say you want a revolution
Well you know, we all want to change the world

The Beatles, Revolution (1968)

earth-sun

Earth has cycled round the Sun once again. Another new year rises. I’ve been on this trip 57 times now, and every year opens as infinite promise.

The New Year’s Resolution thing is, obviously, a conceptual conceit. Choosing 1 January to make life changes is arbitrary – after all, as Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, every breath is a resurrection. Every breath brings new life. Every breath is an opportunity for change.

Still, in Western culture, at least, a new year is viewed as a re-set button.

The nineteenth-century philosopher (and forerunner of contemporary psychology) William James wrote

To change one’s life:

  1. Start immediately.
  2. Do it flamboyantly.
  3. No exceptions.

Current psychiatric and psychological advice is to recognize behaviour change is hard, and there will inevitably be lapses (“exceptions”), and that understanding change as a gradual process, a process that requires we be kind to ourselves, and pace ourselves, is healthier and more likely to result in desired outcomes than what’s known as “all or nothing thinking”, or “black and white thinking”.

But current advice does suggest starting immediately (THIS breath, then again after a relapse, THIS breath) is smart, and that making our proposed behaviour change(s) public (“Do it flamboyantly”) makes us accountable, opens us to support, and is, all round, A Good Idea.

This week I had the dual experiences of attending a friend’s funeral and spending significant time with a vibrant young woman living with aggressive cancer.

I go to a few funerals. That’s a consequence of my parents’ friends being octogenarians, living in a community with an older demographic, working in aged care and community services, and having ties to a church community.

This funeral was different. The friend who died deserves a full obituary in his own right, so I won’t go there here. But contextually, I was struck by two things: how emblematic of my formative young adult years this man was; and the sense so many present had that this person, for many years, and for many reasons, after early glories had not lived to his potential, and had suffered sensing that.

He is not alone among my friends in that. It hurts me to think of the friends who died disappointed in their lives.

My living female friend presents a different picture. Despite being partway through treatment, with uncertain outcomes, and despite living with constant, often debilitating pain, she goes to the gym every day, walks her dog twice a day, continues a high-powered professional career part-time, cares for her primary school aged child, is a wonderful, loving, supportive partner, engages in a social life, and does all this with cheer and sparkling wit.

We must live until we die, they say (that amorphous, unattributable “they” – oh okay, maybe American country singer Clay Walker).

I have another woman friend with aggressive cancer at present. In this case, she asserts her will to live by continuing to be the combative, acerbic, fiercely intelligent, costume-loving, kick-ass broad she’s always been. She will not go gently.

This year, I want to live out the lessons I’m learning from those with a talent for living.

My resolution is to live like I mean it.

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Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was a vogue for the works of psychologist William Glasser, who developed what he called Reality Therapy, and Choice Theory, and whose books include Positive Addiction.

Glasser is not fashionable these days, partly because it’s argued he places responsibility to change, to live well, squarely on the individual; it’s argued his theories don’t take sufficient account of environmental factors (social and political structures) or genetic traits.

However: there’s not a lot we can do in the short-term as individuals about the social and political factors that impact us, and nothing we can do about our genetic legacies, save for making the best choices we can to minimize our genetic vulnerabilities.

I find Glasser confronting, but useful.

Essentially, Reality Therapy is about client and therapist focusing on practical steps, practical actions, to improve quality of life. Choice Theory is the idea that it’s all a series of choices. Make the better choice, as they (“they”) say.

Glasser’s theory of addiction stems from Freud’s contention that humans find worth through love and work. If a person believes they’ve failed at love and work, they feel inadequate. In Glasser’s view, they may, objectively, be inadequate.

It’s painful to see oneself as inadequate, so, according to Glasser, we choose behaviours that mask that pain. Generally, these are not good choices: self-medicating emotionally through alcohol, drugs, obsessions, compulsions.

The pain of our addictions is a smokescreen to spare us recognition of that underlying pain – the pain of our failure, our inadequacy.

Addiction is a neural rut, a habit wired in the neural pathways that turns a choice into controlling urge.

It doesn’t work to swim directly into a current; we’ll just exhaust ourselves and drown sooner. Instead, if caught in a rip or strong current, we’re advised to swim at an angle towards the shore, to pace ourselves rather than fight the rip – to focus on staying afloat.

Similarly, with behavioural change, and especially with addiction, instead of going mano a mano with the behaviour it might work better to take a more oblique approach: to focus on a positive behaviour, and substitute a positive addiction for a destructive one.

At the time Glasser wrote Positive Addiction, in 1985, research suggested two highly effective substitute behaviours that can displace addiction: meditation, and running. Any behaviour engaged in to excess can become problematic, if it adversely affects a person’s physical health, relationships, work responsibilities, social life or other significant commitments, and there’s been a great deal of publicity around ways running, particularly, can be problematic, but generally speaking both exercise and forms of meditation are extremely useful strategies in countering damaging behaviours.

No one can promise exercise, or meditation, will shield us from disappointment, or ill health, or under-performance. But exercise and meditation can help allay depression, anxiety, and a sense of inadequacy.

So this year, even though I’ve said this before, I plan to put back some of the activities I’ve let drop.

I want to walk more, do more yoga, breathe more mindfully, ride my bike, swim, dance, tend my garden.

I want to play the piano, maybe the viola, sing.

I want to listen to more music, spend more time with friends. Enjoy my life.

I want to live.


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Anthony O’Grady d.19 December 2018

Update: I am humbled that Anthony’s sisters Sharyn and Suellen have invited me to read a section from this at Anthony’s commemoration, Thursday 27 December 2018. I am honoured to contribute.

Anthony O’Grady with Bryan Ferry – RAM

One day late in 1979 I was walking along Glebe Point Road in Sydney with my new friend, Stuart Coupe, and Stuart suggested I should write for RAM, Rock Australia Magazine, my bible. He said he’d introduce me to the editor. So I went along to the RAM offices in Crown Street, Darlinghurst, to meet Anthony O’Grady.

The RAM offices were on the second level of a converted terrace building and were kinda funky. People who looked like they belonged in rock’n’roll were fugging up the space. Behind a large desk, with his back to a window overlooking Crown Street, sat Anthony.

Now Anthony had a very soft voice and pretty, feline features. He leaned back in his chair, with a guarded manner. He was watchful and maybe a bit irritated. I did not look rock’n’roll even slightly.

I could not hear a word AO’G said to me above the noise of traffic through the open window. I just kept smiling and nodding, hoping my timing was ok. Then I genuflected and backed out, cautiously.

That evening Stuart phoned me, to check that I was ok. He told me Anthony O’Grady had apologised for being rude to his friend. Anthony had, apparently, told me to fuck off. I had, apparently, just sat there, smiled and nodded.

Anthony said, “Anyone with skin that thick should be a rock music writer.”

Between them, I owe Anthony and Stuart the life I’ve led.

As a writer, I owe incalculably to Anthony.

My first few articles he tore up. Then he took to slashing them with a red pen. He told me what to dump. He told me what to expand. He told me when it pleased. Eventually, he smiled.

About 10 years later, Anthony took several public transport connections from the north shore of the Harbour to visit me in Kings Cross. He was delayed, by about an hour, and we didn’t have cellphones, so he couldn’t text. Back in my first floor, terrace-house apartment, I grew antsy waiting. I went out.

I was not home when Anthony arrived and he was disappointed. It was a hot day. He’d travelled hours, at some inconvenience. He did that, he told me, because he rated me.

Have I mentioned how highly I rate Anthony?

Love, lots of. From me to you, AO’G.

From Anthony:

I met Elly in 1979, in my capacity as founding editor of the rock magazine RAM. Of the many writers who appeared in the magazine during my seven years as editor, I regard Elly as amongst the most outstanding. Her writing was always perceptive, it embodied the attitude that music could be more than satisfactory entertainment, it could be emotionally fulfilling.

She is that rare individual who combines sensitivity with pervading intelligence. I have never ceased to be impressed by her talents as a writer and the vivaciousness of her personality.

Anthony O’Grady
Founding editor, RAM Magazine

Pics sourced online – on the right, cropped from a photograph by Bob King, in a blog post by Debbie Kruger


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Untitled (2018)

I nursed my father in my arms as he died
spewing black blood.
Do you think any residue between me and you
means anything
alongside that?

I do a lot of death.
The ones who grow old
The people who don’t
Those who barely made it past the cradle.
I wait in the market in Damascus and
no one is unexpected.

I stand on a bridge and
sooner or later they all pass by.
I extend my hand and
welcome them.

Hello, I say.
I have a room prepared.


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Two stories: Yes; and The One Story (1 November 2018)

Yes

Caroline Christchurch sits in a hotel coffee shop, positioned where she can watch the door. Business people come and go. The men are bright-eyed and smartly dressed. The women are dumpy but game, with bright lipstick and over-bleached hair. Caroline notices this kind of thing. This is the way she thinks. How well presented are these people? And: how fast can they move?

A man enters. He veers towards her table, his head slightly inclined, his smile crooked.

He leans the heel of his hand on her table, as if to balance himself, as he passes. He winks. Where his palm was is now a USB. Caroline reaches out, as if in sympathy, and draws the USB towards her. Her hand shelters the USB. She rises abruptly and walks out the door, the USB enclosed in her fist. She walks fast.

Outside on the pavement, she accelerates into a slow jog. The streets are crowded – cars, pedestrians – but Caroline moves purposefully, effortlessly, and people part around her, leaving her way clear. This is how it’s always been. A tall young woman, long hair, clear skin. Long legs. Caroline moves through the world with ease, an actor on a film set, an action heroine.

“Whoa! Show pony!”

A man is in front of her, square on. A man confronts her. He is holding both her wrists, pulling her towards him. His face presses close towards her forehead, as if to kiss her. Deftly, he twists both her hands upwards. He unfurls her fingers. He palms the USB, slides it into his pants pocket. Still holding her right wrist in his left hand, he jerks her towards the revolving street door of a high-rise office.

She screams but it’s a squawk. She attempts a ju-jitsu wrist flick. His grip is firm. He has her bustled through the doorway, now in a foyer lined with lifts. A security attendant mans the front desk. He watches with only mild interest.

The man holding Caroline nods briefly at the security guard and steps her towards a lift. She stops fighting. Outside the lift door she stamps on his foot, spearing down on his arch with her shoe heel.

“Fuck that,” he says. He’s frowning.

They’re in the lift now. He stabs the button that closes the lift doors. He releases her wrist and steps back. The lift is lined with mirrors. There’s a small security camera above the door, in a corner. He addresses it.

“Check,” he says.

The lift is going nowhere. Caroline knows better than to make any move right now. She leans back against the mirror. Her brain works fast.

A disembodied voice speaks into the space.

“Miss Christchurch?” it says. “Caroline?”

Her eyes swivel upwards to the security camera.

“I don’t mean to alarm you, Caroline,” the voice says. “I hope you’re not alarmed.”

Jesus. She thinks, fuckin’ Hal the robot.

“I’m not alarmed,” she says. “Not even wired.”

There’s a pause.

“What we need is calm,” says the voice.

“We need calm?” she counters.

“Calm would be helpful,” says the voice. The man in the lift beside her is silent.

“You realise this is kidnap?” Caroline says. “Detaining me against my will?”

“We are not seeking to obtain advantage,” the voice offers. “This is in your best interests, Caroline.”

“We hope you will consent to meet with us, Caroline,” the voice continues.

“We are waiting. We would welcome a meeting.”

“Do I have a choice?” Caroline asks.

“There is always a choice,” says the voice. “We hope you will consent.”

“Here and now?” she asks.

“We’re waiting,” says the voice. “Level 24.”

“Yes,” she says.

That’s done it. She’s agreed. Was she coerced?

The man beside her presses the button for Level 24. The lift glides upwards. Caroline draws up her spine, lengthens her neck. She is dignity personified. She is scared to the bone.

At Level 24, the lift door opens, direct onto a large conference room. The carpet is a golden beige. The conference table is polished wood. The chairs are upholstered in chartreuse velvet. Caroline notices this kind of thing.

On the far side of the table, down towards one end, backs to the window, are seated three men.

Caroline pauses at the threshold.

“The father, the son, the holy ghost,” she says.

“Let’s not be dramatic,” says the voice. With the light behind these figures, she can’t tell which man spoke.

The men do not rise.

Caroline feels the man beside her reach his arm around her waist, his left hand lightly touching her left hip. He guides her towards down alongside the table, towards where the men are seated.

“Thank you for agreeing to be here,” says the voice. It belongs to the man on the left, the far end.

“We hope we can resolve this amicably. We hope we can help you.”

Caroline does not know what to say.

“Please sit,” says Hal.

The man beside Caroline pulls out a seat opposite the speaker. He gestures for her to sit.

Caroline acquiesces.

“May we have your permission to record this meeting?” the man seated opposite asks her.

“Yes,” she says again. She thinks: This is a sales technique. Solicit agreement. Yes and yes again is cumulative.

“Please allow me to introduce myself,” says Hal. “I represent a client. Not yours. Ours. A legal client.”

Caroline feels a surge of anger. Physically, she is paralysed.

“You unlawfully obtained something belonging to him.”

“No,” says Caroline, forcefully. She hears the italics and exclamation mark. “Your client raped me. Your client filmed himself raping me. Your client took something from me. Your client has no right to the record of that act.”

“I understand how you feel, Caroline,” says the man on the left. “But we need calm here. Emotive outbursts will not help anyone. Your perception of events is not reality.

“We need you to acknowledge that.”

“Why would I give a fuck what you need?” spits Caroline.

Three men sit opposite her. See no evil hear no evil speak no evil. The evil brothers. Marx is funnier.

“We’re here to help you, Caroline,” says Hal.

“We’re sure you’ll agree it would be best if that USB did not exist. It’s in your best interests for it to not exist.”

Caroline does not know what to say.

“It’s in your best interests to make this go away. We can help you. We can make it go away.”

A shiver runs the full length of her body.

“We can handle this privately,” the man says. “Calmly.”

“I want this public,” she says. “I want your client charged. I want him in court. I don’t care who sees the video. I want him convicted.”

“We don’t think you do, Caroline,” says the man across the table.

“We think you understand that is not going to happen. Nothing will happen you don’t want to happen.”

Caroline thinks.

“We have nothing to talk about,” she says. “Let me leave, now.”

“No one is detaining you,” says the man.

“You are here at your own choice.”

“Do you know your way out?” the man asks. “Sometimes people get confused. We wouldn’t want you to get lost.”

Caroline pauses. She glares at him.

“I can find my own way,” she says.

The light behind them silhouettes the three men.

“Technology is so unreliable,” says Hal.

“Here one moment, gone the next.” The voice is disembodied.

“Fuck you,” says Caroline.

She turns to where the lift doors are camouflaged in the wall. The man beside her is her shadow. He stands so close she can feel his breath.

The doors open.

“You can make a better choice,” says the voice. “We hope you will make a better choice.

“None of this needs to have happened. None of this needs to happen.”

Caroline steps into the lift.

Her shadow remains with her.

She presses the button for Ground Level. She presses the button for Close Door.

The lift descends. She can feel her stomach plummet.

They reach ground level.

“What happens now?” she asks the man beside her.

“Now you are free,” he says. “You are always free.

“Your choice,” he says. And he smiles.

USB

The One Story

They say every one of us has a novel in us. One novel. At least one novel, each.

Everyone has a story. I’ve heard it said there’s just the one story. One story each. One story that explains how we see the world.

So, let me see.

Depending on who I am, what would be the one story? The story of love. The story of loss. The story of transgression. The story of redemption. The story of malevolence. The story of deep, unending grief?

The story of forgetting? The story erased?

I’ve heard it said if we don’t tell our story, we can’t be known. If we don’t know our story, we can’t exist.

Can that be true?

I thought I knew who I was. That is, I thought I knew, until the police showed up at the door.

“Kylie Ambrose?” they asked. “Are you Kylie Ambrose?”

I said I was. Because who else should I be?

Kylie Ambrose. Fifteen years old. Bookish. Bolshie. A sharp-tongued virgin. Lives in the suburbs, with her dad and mum. Mixed feelings about school. Hates the classroom. Loves to learn. Some day, will be a scientist.

Rocket science.

The two police officers looked at me solemnly.

“Where are your parents?” they asked.

Then I felt fear, fear like vomit rising.

“Are they all right?” I asked.

“They’re fine,” said the male cop. “Are they are work?”

“You tell me,” I snapped. Smart aleck.

Outside the house, on the street, I saw a squad car parked. I could see another officer at the driving wheel. I could hear the crackle of police radio.

“Come with us, please,” said the female police officer.

I was cold in every limb.

“I’ll wait here for my parents,” I said.

The female police officer turned away and walked towards the police car. She opened the front passenger door, leaned inside and spoke to the driver. Then she returned.

“Your parents will join us at the station,” she said.

“It’s okay, Kylie,” she said.

The story of betrayal. Is it ever okay?

My name is not Kylie. My parents are not my parents. This is not my country. I will never be a rocket scientist.

An ocean away, a woman was waiting. My real mother, who I never knew.

Abducted, they told me. Me, not her.

I don’t know what this life is, but it isn’t mine. My story is stolen.

It can’t be recovered.

Suburbia


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

Judgement_of_Paris_Elly_McDonald_Writer

“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.

Trojan_War_Elly_McDonald_Writer

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?

Ajax_carries_Achilles_body_Elly_McDonald_Writer

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.