What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this month.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, Hamish Hamilton, 2018
I was very sad last month when I finished Song of Achilles and Circe. So I googled ‘What should I read after Song of Achilles and Circe?’ and enough people have been there before me and kindly created lists and suggestions. Thus, I found Pat Barker in Ancient Greece rather than World War II where she usually is.
This is written from the POV of Briseis, Achilles slave girl. She’s a different Briseis to the one in Song of Achilles which is also what I’m enjoying about reading the same stories written by different people. If you can get past the absolute subjugation of women and the fact that they are possessed and repossessed multiple times, then you can enjoy the story at least being told by them and staying with them even when Achilles or Agamemnon leave the room. I choose to hear the voice which would otherwise be a cameo in these myths (another reason why Circe was sooo good.
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, Canongate Books, 2005
This slim volume is part of a series called The Myths in which international authors rewrite ancient myths. In comparison to Circe, Song of Achilles and The Silence of the Girls, this felt fleeting. Penelope is mortal for starters and a lot of her life is waiting but what I enjoyed about it, like the others, is the taking of an event which is barely a footnote in Odysseus’ story and fleshing it out. When Odysseus returns to Ithaca after 20 years, there are suitors who have been competing for Penelope as a wife. They are all killed, so are 12 slave girls who were associated with them.
Odysseus is a warrior. His story is synonymous with slaying. He kills, a lot, creatures and humans and as the body count goes higher you do dissociate from the fact that he’s ended a life. This book addresses the silent slaves and gives them the voice of a Greek chorus, so that his past actions can finally talk back to him.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, Bloomsbury, 2020
Piranesi lives in ‘the House’, a world of halls and statues, hundreds of them. He charts the tides and rain and details what he finds on his explorations. He is the only human apart from the Other, who he meets every week.
This book was a slow burn and I didn’t know what I was reading for a while. The hype didn’t help – Women’s Prize for Fiction Winner and the 2nd book from the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. If you’re after something a little different, speculative but quiet and contained, then give this a go. It’s a unique world that she’s created.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, Vintage, 1956
I’m paused here for a moment because it’s James Baldwin, so you’re in good hands, better than good. Maybe he’s too good at what he does because I found this book quite difficult and uncomfortable to read.
On the first page we’re told that Giovanni is in prison and will be killed tomorrow, so it’s no secret that what comes next will be a train wreck, eventually. David is an American in Paris. He has spent a lot of energy insisting that it’s only women he loves, even when he has an affair and moves in with Giovanni. This is the 1950s. How can two men have a life together? The squalor they live in seeps into David’s repression, his ideas of filth and shame about his true self. And then his fiancé returns. No happy endings here folks.
The Sorrow Stone by Kari Gislason, UQP, 2022
Viking Iceland circa the 10th Century. Disa is on the run with her son for a crime she has committed. But these are Viking times and crimes are usually are product of earlier crimes – feuds, betrayals, power grabs and honour killings to avenge these.
As she flees to the fjords we learn about what she has lost, both homeland and family, and what led her to this moment. This is a retelling of one of the most famous Icelandic sagas. You’d think that all my recent time with the Ancient Greeks would have prepared me for violence and death but the Vikings are brutal.
My Hundred lovers by Susan Johnson, Allen & Unwin, 2012
This is a life recalled in one hundred chapters through a body’s memory of desire, lust and love. Sometimes erotic. Sometimes abject. Sometimes simply the warm memory of an everyday sensation.
As the narrator remembers encounters in her teens and twenties I was reminded of books like Raven Leilani’s Luster, Ella Baxter’s New Animal and Sally Rooney’s Normal People where young women use their body and sex not for joy but more as an act of punishment. So, more a female thing than a millennial one. I think we can all cringe and relate more than we’d like to.
But the relief of recounting a hundred lovers is that our narrator grows older and wiser.
Some of these vignettes are pure poetry and as a writer and fan of short fiction, I enjoyed how they could each rest individually or stand together as a whole.
The Last Man in Europe by Dennis Glover, BlackInc., 2017
This novel about George Orwell was a fascinating read bringing together the very particular politics of a time (from the Spanish Civil War to post WW11 Britain), the process of writing and ideas, the personal life of a famous writer and the experiences and influences that combined to create Animal Farm and 1984.
I knew so little of Orwell as a person and had no idea about his tuberculosis, that he fought in the Spanish Civil War and the struggle he had to make a living and write. But what really interested me was his creative life and process. It was a bit like reading Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel and witnessing the forensic assembly of a story being created, what stays, what goes and where it all came from. Probably best followed by a re-read of 1984 to really get the most out of it.
Believe in me by Lucy Neave, UQP, 2021
Bethany tries to make sense of the present by putting together her mother Sarah’s past. Sarah was raped by a pastor, disowned by her family and sent to have her baby on the other side of the world. Once there, her and Bethany move around, always looking for somewhere safe enough to call home.
As soon as she can, Bethany leaves her mum but what are you really leaving when you don’t know where home is. This is a sobering read about the inheritance of trauma, questions of identity and gender and the distance that silence and secrets create within families.
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