This month’s theme for my Facebook Reading Challenge is a love story. I always try to pick a topic for August which is suitable for a holiday read, a bit of escapism, not too taxing. When I came up with the 2020 list of themes I could not have known how 2020 would pan out and that most of us would not in fact be going on holiday at all. Barely going outside our front doors for many weeks. I had no holiday plans at all in fact – my elder daughter was due to be doing the four-week NCS (National Citizenship Service) programme this month, and then getting her GCSE results on the 20th, so there was no space for a holiday. We had a loose plan to take a last-minute week off just before the end of the school holiday but no firm ideas. The NCS programme was cancelled, of course, and travel restrictions abound. However, we are hoping to drive to Zeeland, in the Netherlands, our usual Spring vacation destination, in a couple of days. That is, of course, if the Dutch allow us in! And since I live in Greater Manchester, which is seeing a resurgence in cases of Covid-19, it is entirely possible that we Brits will not be welcome. However, let us remain hopeful. And vigilant.
Back to books…
I had been thinking about some of the classic love stories – Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Gone with the Wind, The Remains of the Day – but none of these felt much like ‘holiday reading’. But then a bit of online research threw up the perfect suggestion – Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman. First published in 2007, this novel was made into a very successful film in 2018 starring Timothee Chalemet and Armie Hammer. It is set in the 1980s on the Italian Riviera (perfect!) and concerns a romance between Italian-American Elio (Chalemet), spending the long hot summer at his parents’ holiday home, and visiting academic Oliver (Hammer). It is apparently quite steamy (perfect!). I have not yet seen the film, so I am delighted to read the book first.
My choice for July was ‘something from the Americas’ and I picked a contemporary Argentinian crime novelist, Claudia Pineiro – a prolific author, well-known in her own country, and someone I had never heard of. Yay for reading challenges! I selected her novel Betty Boo, first published in 2010. The novel begins with the murder of Pedro Chazarreta at his home on the exclusive Maravillosa Country Club estate. Chazarreta is a wealthy businessman and widower, whose wife was murdered three years earlier, also at their home and in suspicious circumstances which were never fully resolved. The murder of Senor Chazarreta is equally mysterious and whilst suicide is widely suggested (a sign of his guilt in relation to his late wife’s death?), there are inconsistencies which arouse the curiosity of among others, Nurit Iscar. Nurit is a writer whose crime novels made her famous. However, she has written nothing for some years after her last novel received terrible reviews; she decided to write a romantic novel, encouraged by her then lover, newspaper editor Lorenzo Rinaldi, but the change of genre was not a successful career move.
At the start of this novel Nurit is divorced, ghost-writing money-spinner books for celebrities and somewhat directionless. Her affair with Rinaldi is long over, but he contacts her and asks her to write some columns on Chazarreta’s murder. He arranges for her to stay at the home of his newspaper’s proprietor at La Maravillosa so that she can get close to the scene of the crime and the people who live there. It was Rinaldi who called Nurit ‘Betty Boo’, because of her dark eyes and dark curly hair. As Nurit gradually becomes immersed in the crime, her relationship develops with two other journalists at El Tribuno, which her ex-lover edits: Jaime Brena, the disillusioned middle-aged hack, former crime journalist, now reduced to the lifestyle section of the paper, and ‘Crime Boy’ the young upstart, now the lead crime writer on the paper, who, with his limited experience, turns increasingly to Brena for help on the Chazarreta case.
These three disparate individuals thus find themselves thrown together on the case, not entirely through their own choosing. Each brings their own skills to bear to try and solve a case (two cases in fact, both Chazarreta and his wife), that the police seem unable, or unwilling, to. As they get closer to what they believe is the truth, more murders occur, which appear to our intrepid trio, to be connected.
This book felt like it had a slow start to me; some of the scene-setting felt a little laboured. Also, I felt that perhaps the translation was not the best; at times the language was awkward and stilted. One problem I had with it was the lack of punctuation to delineate speech! No speech marks or ‘he/she said’ which at times made it difficult to follow who was speaking. Perhaps this is Pineiro’s style or perhaps it is more obvious in Spanish, but for me it really affected the flow at times.
I liked the characters though and in particular the relationship that develops between Nurit, Brena and Crime Boy. Investigating the murder becomes a cathartic process for each of them, a journey, and at the end of it they have resolved some complicated personal issues they each have. The plot also develops in interesting an unexpected ways which keeps you turning the page.
I’d definitely read more of Pineiro – I think it’s always good to broaden your reading horizons and it can give you a good insight into other societies. I am ashamed at how little I know about Argentina. An interesting book that is not too demanding.
I would love for you to join me on the Reading Challenge this month – look out for my review of Call Me By Your Name in September.
My usual routines, including my reading habits, are all over the place right now! What about you? I have both my daughters at home from school and my son home from university, plus my husband working from home. Although we are fortunate to have enough space and enough technology to enable everyone to do what they need to do, there are times when we get in each other’s way. I am also a creature of habit and do not always find it easy to adjust my rhythms to fit with other people’s. So, other commitments permitting, I like sit down with a cup of tea to read at around 3pm most afternoons, just before the return home from school. But, now, that is actually the busiest time of the day in our household – everyone seems to be ‘clocking off’ and wanting interaction! First world problems, as they say. We are all well, work is plentiful; we are among the more fortunate.
At times like this, I find it’s the little things that are important, so I try to find some time every day, no matter how small, to do some reading. I have several books on the go at the moment – Ulysses (which I promised myself I’d re-read this year and which I spent a glorious couple of hours simultaneously reading and listening to on Tuesday, 16th June, Bloomsday), Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, The Beekeeper of Aleppo, which I’m listening to on audiobook, for my book club, and which is amazing, and my Facebook Reading Challenge choice for this month – The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives.
This book by Nigerian writer Lola Shoneyin, was published in 2010 and longlisted for the then Orange Prize for fiction the following year. Shoneyin writes beautifully. I have only just started it but I already love the characterisation and the humour, although a more melancholic note is now beginning to enter. It is described in the publisher’s blurb as at once funny and moving and I can definitely see that. Baba Segi is a traditional Nigerian male, still following the practice of polygamy in modern-day Nigeria. He has seven children by his first three wives, but desires more and when he meets Bolanle, a young graduate from a more enlightened family, who are against the marriage, he thinks his wish has been granted. Not all goes to plan, however.
I am enjoying the exploration of the family dynamics – a polygamous household will be outside the experience of most Western readers – and how the relationships between the four wives are beginning to evolve.
If you would like to join me in my reading challenge this month, hop on over to the Facebook Group– there is still time! It’s a fairly short book and we are only just over halfway through the month; I might even finish on time this month!
How have your reading habits changed in these last few months?
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I posted last week about my ups and down dealing with life during Covid-19. It sparked a lot of comments from friends about others feeling similar emotional swings. It just goes to show that you can’t rely on social media to reflect life accurately; if I look at my Facebook or Instagram feeds it looks as if everyone is having an amazing time and achieving all sorts of interesting challenges! Perhaps everyone else is just ‘faking it till they make it’ as well, putting a brave face on, or, if their profile is also their livelihood, perhaps they are thinking about their business. I am not normally someone who suffers from anxiety or other mental health issues, at least not at the severe end of the spectrum, but it strikes me that more openness and honesty would help those who do.
I mentioned in my last post that one of the books that has really helped me this last few weeks is Grown Ups, the latest novel from Marian Keyes. I have long admired Marian; though I have not read any of her other books, I often hear her on the radio. She is also very active on Twitter and is hilarious. She is able to project her personality very strongly, she is forthcoming about her vulnerabilities and her frailties and she is an engaging and witty speaker. Grown Ups was suggested at my book club for April and I listened to it on audiobook. I absolutely loved it and especially Marian’s wonderfully authentic narration.
The novel is set over the course of six months in the life of one extended family – the Caseys – which comprises the three separate families of brothers Johnny, Ed and Liam and their various wives, girlfriends and children. The novel is set mostly in Ireland and mostly in Dublin, where the main characters all live. It opens on the occasion of Johnny’s 49th birthday, and the three brothers and their families have gathered together,, as they do frequently and regularly. These are usually organised (and paid for) by wealthy Type A personality Jessie, Johnny’s wife, successful business owner of a chain of stores selling high-end and exotic groceries. All of a sudden, Ed’s wife Cara begins to have what can only be described as a mental meltdown during dinner. Although I found this initial scene quite difficult to follow because I did not, of course, know any of the characters, it is quite clear that Cara’s outburst is entirely out of character, deeply embarrassing for many of the attendees, exposing behaviours they believed they had masked pretty successfully, and that it is going to cause deep fissures in what might otherwise appear to be a ‘happy’ family. It’s as if Cara has taken some sort truth drug.
All is in chaos and then Marian takes us back six months and we begin to explore the sequence of events that has led to this breakdown. These include an Easter break in a smart hotel in Killarney, a weekend away to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of the Casey brothers’ awful parents (which goes a long way to explaining the various ‘issues’ their sons have), a hilarious but disastrous murder mystery weekend for Jessie’s 50th birthday and a holiday in Tuscany. Most of these extravagant events are organised and paid for by Jessie, who, as an only child, longs for the happy extended family.
Although it’s the three men who are related, the story seems mainly to revolve around their partners – Johnny’s wife Jessie, who married him a few years after she had lost her beloved first husband Rory, Cara, Ed’s wife, a mild-mannered hotel receptionist, who has an eating disorder, and Nell, the young and lovely set designer, who marries feckless Liam after a whirlwind romance.
At first I found some of the scenes overly long, which made the pace quite laboured in the first quarter or so of the book, but on reflection I think this is necessary to building the personalities of the characters, understanding their motivations, and really getting inside their heads. By the time I got to the last quarter I could not put it down. I became totally lost in the world of the Caseys and found I cared very deeply about what happened to them all. Best of all Marian’s dialogue feels entirely authentic and made me feel nostalgic for get-togethers over the years I have had with my own extended family of Irish in-laws, though none quite so eventful as those depicted here!
This book was a real tonic and I recommend it highly. I will definitely explore more of Marian Keyes’s books.
What books have kept your spirits up during the pandemic lockdown?
It’s been a while since my last post. I’m normally pretty organised when it comes to planning my blog posts, and fairly diligent about posting regularly. School holidays and busy work periods can make things tricky but generally I’m a committed and regular blogger. I imagined that during this period of global lockdown due to Covid-19, I would have much more time to post regularly. That did not quite happen, of course, what with having the whole family at home all the time, and doing much more cooking and cleaning than I do normally (‘help’ sometimes creates more work!). I was getting on okay though, appreciating the facts of our situation: we were all together, we were well, our income was fairly secure, we had a roof over our heads, those basics were in place and so all was good.
After Easter, though, I noticed a real dip in my mood. I cannot really explain it because nothing specific happened. A few things upset or angered me – the ever-increasing death tolls on the nightly news, the increasingly grave news about the economy, the anxiety about how countries with weaker health systems than ours would cope (some of them rather better than the UK it turns out), events I had booked for the coming months were gradually cancelled. I also find myself getting irrationally cross about people who seemed to believe that the measures designed to protect us all didn’t actually apply to them. But, those things didn’t seem to explain the more general malaise I found myself experiencing. I struggled for motivation. Even with at least a million things I could have been doing I felt at a loose end. And when I heard the stories on the television of people who had lost loved ones to the virus, I found the complicated grief I felt about my mother’s death last Autumn, resurfaced in ways I had not expected. Some days I felt relief that she wasn’t here to experience or be worried about getting the disease (she would certainly have died had she got it as she was very unwell), but at the same time I felt, selfishly, like screaming, hey what about the rest of us who lost people recently, NOT due to Covid-19. It was all very complicated.
I even found it difficult to read. I wasn’t able to focus. I bought Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light at the start of the lockdown, thinking that long weeks of no socialising would give me plenty of opportunity to work my way through the hefty tome. Alas not. I have not even picked it up yet.
Thankfully, I can feel my mojo starting to return this last week or so, just as suddenly and as inexplicably as it went away. To what do I credit this change of mood? The following:
- Marian Keyes – Grown Ups to be precise. It was my book club’s choice the last time we met in person and although it was probably not a book I would have picked up it was the most perfect tonic, especially as I listened to it on audio, with Marian’s wonderful narration.
- Vincent Van Gogh – many years ago my husband bought me a 1000 piece Photomosaic jigsaw puzzle of a Van Gogh self-portrait. If you’ve never seen these, they are very clever, the larger image is made up of hundreds of tiny little photos, fiendishly difficult, but completely addictive. I had never done that jigsaw, but seemed to decide that ‘now’ was the time. Many dinners were burned or delayed as I found it difficult to drag myself away from it. We had to eat round it as it sat at the end of the dining table, a fortnight-long work in progress. There was one near-disaster when the cat, in a last desperate attempt to get my attention to feed him, leapt up on the dining table and almost sent several hundred carefully colour-organised pieces crashing to the ground. Lucky for him, only a few pieces fell and Ziggy the cat lives to fight another day!
- Withdrawal from social media – I’m not a big social media user, but I dabble.I found I really couldn’t take much Facebook though and Twitter was a total no-go – way too much anger and too many chronically-opinionated people.
- And finally, free arts online – more than anything I am missing the arts (hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious). The audience with Hilary Mantel I had booked for April was cancelled, as was West Side Story at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, the Hay Festival, the Thom Yorke gig in Manchester next month as well as various performances my kids were involved with and a couple of work trips to London with exhibitions to be taken in. Thank goodness for the National Theatre’s weekly NT Live recordings, the virtual tours of museums around the world, and Radiohead classic concerts on YouTube.
It hasn’t been all play, of course, I only dabbled with all of the above. I got a bit sick of hearing lifestyle-y type people saying how bored they were and were looking for things to do. I have felt busier than ever, my work has been emotionally quite demanding, and it’s never good hearing from over-achievers in those circumstances.
So, like most people, I am muddling along, looking forward to some normal things and trying to make the best of the situation. And hopefully getting back to an even keel on the blogging front.
I hope you are all doing okay.
I’d been reading some books about writing non-fiction (to try and improve my own writing) and I came across this book, extensively cited as a fine example of the genre. It’s a chunky book that I intended to skim read, with a view to getting an idea about structure and the concept of writing about a personal journey, but I quickly became engrossed in the incredible story of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman, mother of five from Virginia, who died in 1951 at the age of thirty-one from an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Without either her consent or knowledge, the surgeon treating Henrietta took some of her cancer cells and passed them on to a colleague who was trying to find cells which would survive long enough outside the human body to be useful for research. The idea of doing this without the patient’s consent seems shocking to a 21st century reader, but remember this occurred at a time of segregation and ethical concerns and patient rights were concepts not widely considered to be essential elements of medical practice.
This may have been unremarkable and probably happened more than we care to imagine, but for what happened next: Henrietta’s surgeon had noticed how rapidly her cancer cells had grown, but when George Gey, the scientist to whom he had sent the cells, received them, he found that they divided and reproduced at a rapid rate, and, most remarkably, seemed extraordinarily robust outside their host, unlike all other cells he had dealt with. Gey soon forwarded cells to other colleagues working in the field and they too found the ability of these cells to thrive truly remarkable. HeLa (the name given to the cells) was born and they quickly became an essential part of research worldwide into therapies not just for cancer but for polio and HIV to name but a few. It is thought that around 50 million tonnes of HeLa cells have been cultivated since 1951.
Meanwhile, Henrietta, died and left behind a widowed husband and five young children, two still in nappies, who would never have any memory of their late mother, and one with severe disabilities who would later be committed to an institution. They were poor; Day, Henrietta’s husband, tried to scrape together a living for the family as best he could while Henrietta’s sisters helped with the children. The family would know nothing of what had happened to Henrietta’s cells.
Rebecca Skloot, the author of this book first learned about the HeLa cells in a science class, but it was not until several years later, reading a research paper that her interest was truly piqued and she decided to do a little more digging. She tried to get in touch with the family and was at first rebuffed, but she became increasingly fascinated, obsessed even about HeLa, and the woman behind the headlines, and what had happened to her family. Eventually, she built a relationship with Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, who had been an infant when her mother died, and a woman who had never come to terms with her loss.
This book is not just the story of Henrietta and her family, and her cells, it is the author’s journey of discovery of the truth about medicine and science in the second half of the twentieth century. It is also a story about racism and health inequality, about exploitation and greed. The author put years of her life into this book and a glance at the references pages will show you the huge amount of research that went into producing it. It also raises some interesting questions about ethics and consent which may surprise you – you might think the answer to the question “who owns discarded parts of our bodies?” is obvious, but when the complexities of the proposition are explored we see that it is not quite so straightforward.
I expected to skim through this book in a few hours, but I found myself captivated by the story and by the issues it raised. Perhaps there are some bits the author could have left out, but I think it is also pretty clear why she couldn’t!
Recommended, especially if you have any interest in the world of medicine.
Have you ever found yourself becoming engrossed in a book that you didn’t expect?
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Sitting down with the family for our traditional Shrove Tuesday pancake feast yesterday evening, we got into the usual conversation about what each of us was giving up for Lent. We are not at all a religious family; I would describe myself as agnostic, and my children have inherited their parents’ religious scepticism. But we are interested in the bigger picture, and do not demur from Christmas gifts and Easter eggs!
In the past I have given up things like biscuits, or sweets. Scratching around for ideas this year, I suggested I might give up cake, but then remembered that I’m going away for a weekend with a couple of girlfriends shortly so that seemed a bit daft! We talked mainly about food items that might be given up, so what else was there – coffee, alcohol? Well, I don’t really consume a lot of either, but my morning coffee and a glass or two of wine now and then are small but important pleasures, so giving up those seems like reckless self-denial. I questioned my elder daughter about what the point of Lent might be for someone like me (she will be sitting her RE GCSE in a few short weeks and so is very hot on these questions at the moment). She said that for religious people the act of self-denial becomes about that person’s relationship with their god, but for the agnostics amongst us, she could see little benefit beyond it being another opportunity to make some sort of resolution, but which does not last a whole year.
I am very content with my relationship with food, and consider my diet good, on the whole. I don’t have many bad habits (I gave up Newsnight already, which was a terrible wrench, but it was a major cause of too many late nights!) and I don’t smoke, but I’m really not perfect. So, I stopped thinking about my body and started thinking about my mental habits. One of my resolutions for 2020 is to address finally my chronic self-esteem problem. I have been working through a book I discovered in my local library (one from the excellent ‘books on prescription’ selection) called Overcoming Low Self-Esteem by Melanie Fennell. I have ended up buying my own copy because I realise it is one I will want to hang onto for a long time, which seems unfair to other library users, and I find myself scribbling on copious post-it notes throughout.
The book incorporates cognitive behavioural therapy techniques into exercises for addressing, for example tendencies to be self-critical. Low self-esteem can lead to debilitating inhibition, irrational fears, in both social and professional situations, and, I believe, can truly limit one’s life experience, achievement, enjoyment in life and personal relationships. I have found it really tough working through this book, particularly the chapters which focus on understanding the causes of poor self-esteem. Thinking about my relationship with my parents, in the aftermath of my mother’s death just a few months ago has not been easy.
What has become clear to me already (and with this book I feel I have started on a journey that will last many months) is my tendency to think negatively, mainly although not exclusively about myself, and this has been a source of pain and of conflict at various times in my life. So, I am going to try to give up negative thinking. Even being aware of when it is happening, will probably be a revelation.
I’ll let you know at Easter how I’ve got on, although I hope I won’t then want to go on a negative thinking binge!
Will you be giving up anything for Lent?
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You would have to have been under a literary rock this last week or two to have missed the fact that the final part of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, will be published on 5 March. An edited extract of the first chapter was published in The Guardian on Saturday – just savour these opening lines:
“Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner.”
I think we can believe the hype – this is surely a writer at the top of her game! A few lucky critics who have had a preview have already tipped it for this year’s Booker Prize (parts one and two both won in 2009 and 2012). I am a huge fan of Mantel, ever since I read “A Place of Greater Safety”, a novel about the aftermath of the French Revolution. It was the book that really got me back into reading after I’d finished my English degree – I was all ‘read-out’ by the time I graduated, so this book saved me!
I am looking forward to reading The Mirror and the Light although at a stonking 912 pages, don’t expect a review any time soon!
There are many other books to get excited about this year. Isabel Allende’s latest book A Long Petal of the Sea was published in English last month. It is a story about escapees from the Spanish Civil War arriving in Chile in 1939, their evacuation having been organised by the great national poet Pablo Neruda. I was lucky enough to attend a talk Isabel Allende gave in Manchester (with Jeanette Winterson!) a couple of weeks ago and she was every bit as impressive and inspiring as I expected her to be. AND I got a signed copy of the book!
Sebastian Barry’s sequel to the wonderful Days Without End, will be published next month. Called A Thousand Moons it follows the story of Winona, the native American girl adopted by the narrator Thomas McNulty and his lover John Cole. Later in the spring look out for Simon Armitage’s first collection of poetry to be published since he became poet laureate, Magnetic Field. Also, new novels from Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage, winner of last year’s Women’s Prize, called Silver Sparrow, and Ottessa Moshfegh, whose thriller Eileen was one of the highlights of the 2016 Man Booker shortlist. Her new novel is called Death in Her Hands and promises to be another novel of drama and suspense when a woman comes across a mysterious note in the woods. I am also looking forward to the next Marwood and Lovett novel from Andrew Taylor – I loved The Ashes of London and The Fire Court and am about to start The King’s Evil. This is a really interesting series of books.
Highlights of the summer for me will be a new novel from the wonderful Elena Ferrante called The Lying Life of Adults, about adolescent shame, set, like her Neapolitan novels, in Naples. Also, the final part of Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, Summer; I read Autumn in 2017 when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker, and recently reviewed Winter. Better get on and finish Spring! Another book that will be hotly anticipated this summer will be the new one from Curtis Sittenfeld, author of American Wife, a book I loved. The new one is said to be about Hillary Clinton and is as yet untitled.
Information on what we can expect in the second half of the year is naturally a bit more sketchy, although I believe there are new novels from Caitlin Moran, Nick Hornby, comedian and Pointless presenter Richard Osman, and William Boyd. On the non-fiction front, I am excited by the prospect of memoirs from Manchester’s punk performance poet John Cooper Clarke, and from trans US military whistleblower Chelsea Manning.
So, it looks like my TBR list for 2020 has well and truly written itself!
There will be plenty more releases announced as the year goes on, and I like to post every few months on what’s coming up, so watch this space.
What new releases are you looking forward to this year?
I was very excited at the prospect of reading this book. For my sins, I have never read a Pat Barker, not even the Regeneration Trilogy, the third volume of which, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize in 1995. I knew about it, of course, and I think I bought it at some point (though I have moved so many times in my life that I cannot lay my hands on it now!) What I also knew about Pat Barker was that she was born and went to school in Stockton on Tees, a much-neglected part of the country, where I also lived for 12 years and where all my three children were born, and where I still have many friends. She was born to a young single mother but was brought up by her grandparents and lived a stereotypically working-class life until her academic ability set her apart and she was selected to attend grammar school. Barker started writing at a young age but her first novel was not published until she was forty. She is the same age as my mother, who died shortly before I started reading this book a few months ago. I love the ‘Pat Barker story’, feel a deep admiration for her (even though I had not hitherto read any of her books) and felt in some ways a connection with her; the working-class girl made good.
The Silence of the Girls has been critically-acclaimed and was shortlisted for last year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. I really, really wanted to love this book, but I’m afraid I didn’t. It could be that the timing was wrong – December for me was mad busy so I read the book in short bursts over a longish period when I was quite stressed. I don’t think I gave it the time and attention it deserved. But then, neither did it really grab me when perhaps it ought to have done.
The book is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad but from the perspective of some of the women involved, primarily that of Briseis, the wife of King Mynes of Lyrnessus, the Trojan city sacked by the Greeks, led by Achilles. As a reward to the victors, the women of the city are given out to them, essentially to live as their sexual slaves. Briseis is given to Achilles and narrates the story, although it is very much her internal reflection as she plays almost no verbal part in the proceedings she observes – the banquets, the post-battle analysis by Achilles and his fellow warriors, the political machinations, primarily between Achilles and Agamemnon, and the mental strife of Achilles – hence the concept of ‘silence’. Her perspective and her account veer between the lofty, primarily Achilles’ self-doubt, his longing for the reassuring presence of his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, and his conflict with Agamemnon, and the brutal visceral reality of war. At one point, Achilles gives Briseis to Agamemnon, although their relationship is not consummated and because of this Achilles later accepts her back.
Briseis fantasises about escaping, even comes close to achieving it at one point, but she is all too aware of her very precarious position. Even though her life is demeaning and not secure, she will always be an outsider and therefore a threat, she grows strangely close to Achilles, seeing his vulnerability and, eventually, the fragment of care he appears to have for her.
There is something of a fashion for retelling tales from the ancient classics at the moment; Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, is a modern take on the Oedipus myth (I was not mad about that either), and Madeline Miller’s Circe, which I haven’t read, also takes Homeric mythology as its subject. The ideas are interesting, but somehow, for me, The Silence of the Girls just doesn’t quite work. I loved how ‘down and dirty’ it was, giving us perhaps the real insight into life at the time of the Trojan wars, rather different to the heroic presentation we get from Homer. But that ‘realism’ then jarred with, for example, Achilles’ seeking out his mother in the sea. These were parallel universes that collided in the novel, but there was no bridge between them, nothing to help me imagine that great myth and brutal, visceral reality could co-exist. Perhaps that was a failure of my imagination! I also just could not get inside the author’s head in some of the scenes she created. The small domestic scenes, in Achilles’ quarters, the bedroom, even the hospital wards and the buildings where the women worked, were well-drawn, but I couldn’t quite see the bigger scenes, the ships at anchor, the battles, the idea of going to war as a daily job of work, from which combatants return, minus a few casualties, just did not quite ring true. And this lack of, for me, authenticity, clashed with the hyper-real scenes of blood, guts, mud and sex (for which read rape, because that’s what it was).
I’m not sure where I’m at with this book. Perhaps it was a grand ambition that just didn’t quite come off for me. I will read Regeneration and Union Street. I will delve deeper into Barker’s work, but as an introduction to her, this one, for me, was a bit disappointing.
Recommended if you’re a fan or a classicist.
What did you think of The Silence of the Girls?
I am not a big fan of thrillers – they aren’t usually my reading of choice – which is the only way I can explain how this book passed me by when it was first published eight years ago. I have also, in the past, eschewed big bulky paperbacks in favour of something a little less…popular! When I launched my 2020 Facebook reading challenge a few weeks ago, January’s theme was a major title from the last decade and Gone Girl was undoubtedly that. It spent several weeks at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and sold over two million copies in its first year of publication alone. If you read any reviews of the book, you will see how difficult it is to write about without spoilers and that is something I too am going to find challenging here. I will simply start by saying – OH MY GOODNESS, WHAT A BOOK!!!
This book grabbed me by the throat right from the outset; I listened to it on audio (fantastic performances from the actors Julia Whelan and Kirby Haborne, by the way) and simply could not ‘put it down’. I got a lot of exercise in January, because going for a walk became an excuse to listen to a few more minutes’ worth!
Our two main protagonists are Nick Dunne, an out of work writer from Missouri, and his wife Amy Elliot Dunne, from New York, the only child of two psychologists who made a fortune from a children’s book series, Amazing Amy, about a perfect little girl navigating her way in the world, making perfect decisions among imperfect other people. Amy, a psychology graduate like her parents, also chose a writing career though hers is more prosaic than Nick’s, she writes personality quizzes. They meet at a party, get together, get married and share an apartment in Brooklyn, bought for them by Amy’s parents. They have a seemingly perfect life until a number of events force them to move back to Nick’s hometown. First Nick and then Amy, lose their jobs, a result of the shake up in the publishing world brought about by the internet. Then, Nick’s mother becomes terminally ill with cancer and his twin sister Go (short for Margo), asks them to return to help take care of their mother and their father who suffers with Alzheimer’s and lives in a care home. Finally, Amy’s parents run into financial difficulty and ask Amy to give them the money from her Trust Fund. It also transpires that the house they had given the couple was heavily mortgaged and they can no longer afford the repayments, so it will have to be sold.
Nick and Amy have nothing to keep them in New York so they move back to Carthage, Missouri, rent a modern house on a ghost estate where most of the properties lie empty, unsold since the economic downturn of 2008. Nick invests most of the remaining money they have (Amy’s money) in a bar with his sister.
Although I have set the scene here, as readers we are not in fact given all this information from the outset; it is drip-fed to us throughout part one. One of the most astonishing elements of this book is its brilliant structure. Amy disappears from their home at the very start of the book, on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, in what at first seems to have been a violent bloody struggle. The chapters are narrated by Nick and Amy in turn; his chapters are reflections on the recent weeks, months and years of his life with Amy in the aftermath of her disappearance, and his dealings with the detectives investigating Amy’s disappearance, and her chapters are extracts from her diary, going back to the time the couple met. The police have not yet found the diary. In this first part we learn much about the couple’s history, but also about their respective feelings about their relationship and about each other. As a reader you get drawn into the complex workings of what was a difficult marriage for both of them, but in different ways, their respective efforts to make it better and how these fared. I found myself constantly torn between the two, first on her side, then his. It’s a roller-coaster! Towards the end of part one, the inconsistencies begin to emerge and it becomes clear that not everything is quite what it seems.
I can say little more than that without giving away the plot, and the twist is such a breathtaking thing that you really need to enjoy it! I thought the characters were brilliantly drawn, all the way from Nick and Amy down to the police officers involved in the case. The book is fantastic as a straight-up thriller, but also says a lot about sexual politics, both within relationships and in wider society. The author does not take sides, and no-one comes out of it particularly well.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it, although chances are you’ve already read it! I’m keen to watch the film now, although I’m told, and I’ve read, that it’s not as good. They rarely are!
I would love to know what you thought of Gone Girl, if you have read it.