The Brink of Darkness
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It came out in August; $16.99.
I read the first book in this series, The Edge of Everything and according to my review I largely enjoyed it – I have to say I’d mostly forgotten the book by the time the sequel arrived. If you liked the first one you’re likely to enjoy this one, I think. If you’re not sure, then I have one word for you:
Everything is DIRE and potentially life-altering and epic. X has gone; oh no! My friends are unhappy with me; oh no! etc. I did end up getting impatient with the book – mostly with the characters, but I wonder if it’s actually a pacing issue. Maybe I wouldn’t have had the time to roll my eyes at the melodrama if things had moved faster?
Spoilers for the first book
X is back in the Lowlands and of course things have changed because not only does he want to find his mother, but he also wants to be back with Zoe. Mild spoiler: I found the whole ‘searching for his mother’ thing overdone. There were definitely moments where I thought if he’d asked a different, obvious-to-me question, things would have been different. I also thought some of the revelations about the mother were a bit… meh. Unlikely, or unnecessary.
Zoe is still with her family but her house has been destroyed and she also has to be honest with her friends. I found some aspects of Zoe’s life believable but others not – there was veering between responsible and not that annoyed me.
Look, this isn’t a hard book to read, so it’s not like you’re devoting days of your life to it. I did end up skimming some sections because the conversations got a bit boring and I just wanted to find out how things resolved. But I am also not going to tell someone not to read it: it’s not terrible, it does have interesting and somewhat diverse characters (ish), and it has some interesting things to say about family and friendship that I largely liked. So I didn’t love it but I also didn’t loathe it. Ultimately it’s not really a book aimed at me – I am too old and have rarely enjoyed the sort of over-the-top drama this revels in, even when I was the age this is intended for – and that’s perfectly ok.
The Silence of the Girls
Perhaps unsurprisingly, my mother knows me very well. For my birthday this year, she sent me a book about the science inspiring Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. Which I had never heard of but is described as telling the story go The Iliad through the voices of Briseis and other women.
Spoilers, I guess, for the story of The Iliad. I mean it’s been 2500 years or so, but I guess not everyone knows who dies…
A version of The Iliad from Briseis’ POV is different from, for example, that told by Cassandra or Helen. I think this is a marvellous idea, since she’s right there at the heart of the quarrel that is itself the heart of the problems in this story. And the first part is largely what I was hoping for. It starts with Briseis being captured, along with other women, and there’s a marvellous moment where she looks at a slave woman who looks back, and Briseis knows she is thinking ‘now it’s your turn.’ And Briseis knows that’s fair, because she’s never given much thought to the slave women in her life, who themselves have been captured in war. She and the others get carted off to the Trojan beach, and she’s handed to Achilles, and she experiences the life of a slave woman. There are some remarkable moments where she reflects on being a thing, and how she finds it hard herself to think of herself as anything but a thing.
And then. Sigh.
After Briseis is taken from Achilles and given to Agamemnon suddenly we get these sections written from Achilles’ point of view. I’m confused and disappointed. I understand the need to examine that all-important turning point of the story, but why does it have to be through the words of the fellas who’ve always been the ones telling the story? The title of the novel itself starts to seem a bit of a mockery. Couldn’t Barker have inserted some other unnamed slave girl to tell the story that she watches going on in the tent, while cleaning up? Or couldn’t Briseis have heard patches of the story later – she does marry one of Achilles’ companions – and have that patchwork nature of the narrative be a feature? If the death of Hector could be told from inside the weaving room rather than being viewed then I don’t see why we had to be taken into the lives of Patroclus and Achilles and see it from their point of view. And the women find out about the death of Achilles from the wailing on the battlefield – it’s not like they have to view everything to know it! In fact couldn’t that be part of the exploration of the nature of being female, and a slave, in this context?
I think an exploration of masculinity through the lens of the Achilles/Patroclus friendship would be deeply interesting, told well, that is not the story for a book called The Silence of the Girls.
Another minor quibble is that this book is not sure what it thinks of the gods. I am reminded of the film Troy (which I quite liked, fight me): it only shows Thetis, and it hints at her connection to the sea but not her divinity, so it’s definitely a story about
humanity men. Here, though… the plague is probably because of Apollo but not definitely. There’s a line about Athens wrapping Achilles in her aegis but it’s unclear whether that’s meant to be read metaphorically. But Achilles is seen as the son of a goddess and Thetis is definitely one, having gone back to the sea when Achilles was a child (also it’s partly her fault he’s a bit of a psychopath), and she really does come out of the sea at Troy. So the gods are real but not especially involved? And there’s no comment from Briseis or others about whether the gods can be trusted or whether slaves just don’t get to call on deities and expect to be heard.
With the sections from Achilles’ perspective, the book verges on becoming just another retelling of the story rather than keeping its promise of exploring the consequences of war for women. It definitely does do some of that exploration, and more than half of it is from Briseis’ perspective (I estimate). But by shoving Achilles back into the story that he has always dominated – and not even to reflect on Briseis et al, which would have been startling and perhaps worthy – Barker undercuts her own apparent intentions of allowing the previously silent girls to speak.
While it’s beautiful work I am disappointed.
Every non-indigenous Australian should read this book.
I would hope that an indigenous Australian read this book would experience a lot of punching the air and YEAH! and “that’s what grandma/uncle/cousin always said!” moments. I fear, though, that instead there would be a lot of anger (‘why weren’t we told?’), bewilderment (ditto), dismay (ditto, and ‘where is it now?’) and sheer sadness for what’s been lost – physically, and as knowledge – and for what’s been taken away.
People like me – not indigenous, benefiting from ancestors who colonised this land, taking it away from the original owners – should be humbled to learn what was here for tens of thousands of years, which we then screwed up, and denied knowledge of.
Dark Emu is Bruce Pascoe’s exploration of the evidence that Aboriganal Australians had far more agricultural experience, knowledge, and activity than tends to be acknowledged in the standard Australian story. The general line is that when the British arrived, they found nomadic inhabitants who followed game and picked fruit from trees. More recently, you might hear people talk about Aboriginals using fire to move game or set up places where game would come for easy hunting. Pascoe shows that the agricultural acitivites of Aboriginal Australians went far, far beyond that.
As as historian, I really liked the way Pascoe built the evidence for his argument here. One of the things that’s often said about it being hard for writing pre-British invasion history is that the original folk left so few records, and because modern white historians privilege writing. Pascoe does multiple things to that. Firstly, he discusses the archaeological record, which is there if you accept what you’re looking at. Secondly, he shows that there is writing to be used: it’s the journals and letters of white explorers, who simultaneously recorded what they saw indigenous Australians doing and denigrated them. And thirdly, he makes some excellent points about how modern writers categorise societies and civilisation. My favourite bit is in talking about the use of pottery. Just because ancient Greek, Roman, and Chinese civilisations used pottery doens’t make pottery a marker of civilisation… it makes pottery a marker of those civilisations, of a particular way of doing society. And Pascoe quotes Bill Gammage in drawing a distinction between farming, and being a farmer: “one is an activity, the other a lifestyle” (14). Brilliant.
I also want to mention how much I appreciated and enjoyed Pascoe’s style. This is not a dry historical account, with the author attempting or pretending to absent himself from the discussion. Instead, Pascoe is very much present – commenting on where sections have been updated with further information from various sources, pointing out how Australian farmers could benefit from the knowledge of how Australian Aboriginals did things, occasionally making snarky comments about the explorers’ notes. It’s a very honest history, since no author is truly objective and aloof from their topic.
Before the British arrived, indigenous Australians had extensive methods to cultivate food, both on land and as aquaculture; they had various means of preserving and saving food for later; and they lived in houses of various construction types. That most Australians today don’t know this is because things were destroyed by squatters or ignored by archaeologists, historians, and others. This book is an incredibly important addition to the way Australia today should view its past, and consider its future.
A Winter’s Promise
This book was sent to me by the Australian publisher, Text Publishing, at no cost. It’s out now; $22.99 for the paperback.
I’m torn. I really am. I read this in a Sunday, because it’s fairly well paced and most of the writing is quite lovely (which means kudos to Hildegarde Serle for the translation – there are a few clunky bits but I’m not sure whether that’s the translation or the translation, if you know what I mean). I really like the idea of the world – broken somehow, humans surviving on ‘arks’ that appear to floating (??) above the remnant of the Earth. And humans mostly have some sort of mind-powers, and there are ‘family spirits’ who appear to be the original settlers of these arks? or something, that’s not explored yet. (I haven’t read many reviews but I haven’t seen anyone compare it to NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth series yet – the books themselves are very different but there’s something of a parallel in what seems to have happened to the original Earth). I liked the main character, Ophelia – I’ve seen some dissing of her, and I get where most people are coming from, but I mostly enjoyed her and her flaws: her clumsiness has a cause, rather than being meant to be just an adorable trait, and she largely bears up under the weight of being pushed around by everyone. Yes, she’s often passive, but I sympathise with that in the context – she’s terrified, mostly alone, and kept ignorant. (There’s a similarity between her and Jupiter, from Jupiter Ascending.) Those things are others’ fault, not hers, and she does try some things to improve her situation. Also, she keeps regretfully thinking that she just doesn’t love her (arranged) fiancé, and I’m madly hoping she’ll be accepted as asexual and aromantic. There are some interesting other women in the book, but I can’t figure out how I feel about them mostly being various sorts of horrible, mostly revolving around being selfish.
So there are definitely good bits. But.
I do not agree with Elle, saying that this belongs on the same shelf as Harry Potter.
Firstly, pretty much everyone seems to have milky white skin. Not everyone’s skin tone is mentioned, so maaaaybe we’re meant to be that there’s not-white people? But that’s a pretty big stretch. And we’ve only been to two different arks so maaaaaybe there’s racial segregation? But that would also be problematic and it hasn’t been mentioned in this book and… yeh. It is disappointing to read this in a book today.
Then there’s the intended audience. This is being talked about as a YA but there’s a character who frankly declares his intention of seducing and ‘deflowering’ Ophelia because of being Thorn’s fiancé and… that’s not really called out. Sure, talk about sex in the book, and portray it as problematic even, but – that’s an adult man, a lot older than Ophelia, planning her seduction because that’s all he does with women. And that, friends, is gross.
On which topic: there is no romance in this book. Anyone who tells you otherwise read something quite different from what I did. I assume people are reading one of the characters as being a bit Mr Darcy, but… no.
I can’t help but wonder whether the people who are raving about this being something new, and unique, have read very much YA. The world is definitely lovely and intriguing but it’s not unique. The plot is a coming-of-age story – which I adore, but um is not unique. And so on. I’m not cautioning against reading this (unless the bit about the older man planning to seduce the young woman creeps you out which I would totally understand), but neither am I going to be seeking out the sequel.