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.
This book was sent to me by the Australian publisher, Text Publishing, at no cost. It’s out on 20 March 2017; RRP $29.99 (C-format paperback).
This is a tale about Medea, which makes me happy she is definitely one of the more intriguing of ancient mythical women. Kerry Greenwood wrote a take on her ages ago, which I remember enjoying, and she featured in Robert Holdstock’s remarkable Merlin-and-Jason series (hmm… did I ever finish that? Must check). For the modern writer there must be a challenge in trying to understand what could compel this woman to leave her homeland, kill her brother, and eventually kill her children, and a tension is deciding whether to stay true to the “original” (HA) story, or to put a different spin on it – keep the children alive, for instance. Do you play Jason as a helpless fool or an arrogant one, Medea as loving and betrayed or as cunning herself, and perhaps still betrayed – or the witch that she’s sometimes regarded as? Lots of interesting possibilities.
… and I guess those are some spoilers if you don’t know the Medea story.
Vann chooses to set his version properly far back in time, the 1300s BC; there is reference to Hittites, and Ilium, and Egypt. There are no Greeks; Jason and his Argonauts are the Mynae. Intriguingly, his descriptions of the voyage of the Argo back to Iolcus – which is more than a third of the book – is based on Vann’s own experience of traveling on a recreated ship of Hatshepsut’s time, with archaeologist Cheryl Ward, for a French documentary Building Pharaoh’s Ship.
First, let me mention the language. The copy describes it as ‘poetic prose’, which is apt. Bluntly it means there are lots of incomplete sentences and a few extended ones, and lots of adjectives and time spent on description. The gorgeous reality, of course, is not captured in that summation. For example:
Her father a golden face in darkness. Appearing in torchlight over the water and vanishing again. Face of the sun, descendant of the sun. Betrayal and rage. (p1)
The sail not a god itself but only the tracing of a god, a more responsive form of temple. Like fire to reveal Hekate. How can we know when we’re worshipping a god and when we’re worshipping only the sign of a god? Wind itself a sign of something else, and even fire, and white hides behind them? (115).
I’m not accustomed to reading quite such flowery language (which I mean positively), so it did take me longer than expected to read the book. It is wonderfully evocative and enjoyable, don’t get me wrong. And the other thing that I appreciated you can see in that last quote – Hekate. Korinth. Kreon. It’s also Iolcus and Colchis so I’m not sure if that’s annoying inconsistency; some Green scholar will have to let me know.
There are lots of threads that Vann is tracing through Bright Air Black (words from a translation of Euripides – the gods “turn the bright air black” in frustrating mortals). One is the role of gods, or lack thereof. Medea frequently calls on Hekate, who sometimes appears to answer in the form of fortuitous weather; but at other times Medea despairs of her goddess and appears to be at best agnostic. There is no magic here (probably); there is luck and poison and human trickery and the use of power. There’s some commentary on the role of those things in developing human society and how men (as a rule) keep power.
This being Medea there is also commentary on the nature of feminine power. Medea has always been a weird girl, going off into the forest and not being afraid of the night; she plays on that and develops her reputation for fearlessness through her familiarity with the unfamiliar and inhuman – forests, the sea, the night. And then she leaves her family for a foreigner. Medea herself ruminates on the power of women versus the power of men; this includes thinking about her own family, and the complicated genealogy whereby it’s unclear exactly who her mother and grandmother are – are they the same person? No one much cares; it’s the men that matter.
This is a pretty straight retelling of Medea’s story – if you know Medea, you know what’s going to happen. Vann has added motive and explanation, an investigation and justification of some events and a whole lot of description. It’s a great addition to the oeuvre of Greek mythological retellings.