The White Hare by Jane Johnson

Love and mourning, betrayal and hope, ancient legends and modern conflicts come together in the atmospheric Cornish countryside in this engrossing novel.

Jane Johnson (The Sea Gate; The Tenth Gift) transports readers to rural Cornwall in the years just after World War II in The White Hare, a fanciful novel of family, village life, history, mythology and more.

In the opening pages, first-person narrator Mila, her daughter, Janey, and her mother, Magda, arrive at their new home, a grand but dilapidated Cornish seaside estate, in the summer of 1954. Timid Mila is fleeing an unnamed scandal in London; the irascible Magda has taken charge of their little troop. Janey, age five, is eager to explore her new surroundings, accompanied by Rabbit, her stuffed toy and best friend. The estate, purchased with unexplained but apparently significant funds, has a mysterious history; locals make foreboding remarks and then clam up. “Best not talk about unlucky things too much, or you may attract unwanted attention,” Mila is warned. Magda plans to refurbish and open a grand guest house, with Mila to cook and clean. Immediately and surprisingly latching on to their odd household is Jack Lord, a local who is (like all these characters) unforthcoming about his past, but handy with repairs and good with high-spirited, imaginative, clever Janey. Things go bump in the night, there are hints of ghosts and old crimes, and the vicar in town is inexplicably, aggressively sinister.

Mila and her parents immigrated from Poland just before the war, so she must deal with several layers of outsider status in this insular and remote setting. Janey and Rabbit are oddly at home in the natural world and its legends, while Mila struggles with local culture; her mother’s hostility is considerable, but Jack’s influence is calming, if enigmatic. The White Hare is jam-packed with slowly released secrets: those between mothers and daughters, those kept by the villagers, and those locked away within traumatized minds. It addresses class and war, mysticism and folklore, the persistent influence of history and bloodshed; it dabbles in romance, but remains centrally concerned with the relationships of family, community and place. With lush descriptions of fashion, food and especially nature, Johnson’s prose appeals to sentiment and expertly evokes an often-menacing mood. The intrepid, uncanny Janey and her Rabbit, however, joined by several wise women of the village, offer hope that Mila and her family can move into a happier future in the end. The White Hare is enthralling, as filled with secret passages as the stately home in which it’s set.


This review originally ran in the August 22, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 Latin phrases.

Maximum Shelf: Ithaca by Claire North

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 22, 2022.


Claire North (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August; The Pursuit of William Abbey) offers a new take on a familiar tale with Ithaca, a richly imagined, thought-provoking novel of Penelope’s trials during the Trojan War and its aftermath. The forgotten or misrepresented women and goddesses of ancient Greece bring joy, sorrow, humor and wit.

A lengthy space of time falls between The Iliad‘s story of the Trojan War’s conclusion and The Odyssey‘s story of Odysseus’s protracted homecoming. On the island of Ithaca while its king, Odysseus, is absent, Penelope, his queen, rules uncertainly, beset by unruly suitors wishing to become king, and the hopes and ambitions of her son, Telemachus, an infant when his father went to war and a young adult by the time he returns. Into this gap comes Ithaca, which follows the challenges faced by Penelope and the other women–queens, wives, mothers, goddesses, slaves–who surround her and fight their own often overlooked battles.

The Homeric myths are well-known and familiar territories for many readers and indeed many writers, who have reimagined and retold these stories in abundance. But despite the richness of such retellings, Penelope remains an enigma, and North’s contribution to the genre is unique and welcome. While the Ithacan queen is in some respects its protagonist, Ithaca is narrated by the goddess Hera, wife (and sister) to Zeus, and frequently represented as bitter, jealous and vengeful. Hera’s interest in Penelope is self-serving: as the goddess of women, wives, queens and motherhood, she resents the ways in which Penelope is disregarded by her male counselors, her absent husband, her suitors and her son. While Hera’s stepdaughter, Athena, is chiefly concerned with the hero Odysseus, Hera is entirely here for the women. In fact, it is not Penelope whose fate concerns her first: “No one ever said the gods did not have favourites, and it is Clytemnestra I love best, my queen above all, the one who would be free.”

Clytemnestra’s crime of husband-murder is reframed by the recounted sins of Agamemnon, and when the murderess-queen hides on Ithaca, readers are reminded that she and Penelope are cousins. Next arrive Orestes and Elektra, who seek to avenge their father’s death; Orestes is near-mute and disengaged, while his sister is a magnetic, powerful force, barely remembering that she must at least seem to defer to the will of a man: “aware that she has been perhaps a little too forceful… [she] adds, ‘My brother will issue his commands shortly.’ ” Clever Penelope is more practiced at the trick of subtly sliding her wise points into conversations while seeming to demur. Telemachus is a bit silly, a boy hoping to be a man. Odysseus is entirely off-screen, “groan[ing] in the nymph’s pearly bed.” Both Artemis and Athena make appearances, annoying their stepmother with their own agendas.

Penelope is of course harassed by the unwelcome suitors who place the queen in a sort of stalemate, as she can neither accept their offers of marriage (both because Odysseus may still be living, and because to accept one would be to provoke the others quite possibly to war) nor send them away (because of the culturally sacred host’s obligation). In this version, Penelope is additionally beset by pirates attacking her island nation–pirates dressed as Illyrians but wielding the short swords of Greeks. There seems to be intrigue afoot, offering a whodunit mystery subplot for Penelope and her subtle female counselors (in contrast to her blustering male ones) to investigate. Women warriors lurk in the shadows of this Ithaca. And North does not forget the maids, who are also slaves, and also in some cases Trojans: “Death to all the Greeks,” one of them repeatedly mutters under her breath. The maids are frequently bedmates of the suitors; but to what end, and with what choice in the matter?

Thus is Ithaca the story not only of Penelope, Hera and other queens and goddesses, but of less famed women as well, down to the teenaged village huntress who opens these pages. Hera is quick to remind her audience that the stories that get passed down are written by poets, whose narratives may be purchased, and who rarely notice the contributions of women: “That girl is not remembered now”; “No poet will ever do her homage.” “Freedom only increased the efficacy of her work, though there is not a single poet in all of Greece who would dare breathe of such an outcome.” Hera’s voice is humorous, whimsical, imperious, frequently scornful. But she is also surprisingly easily cowed by the other Olympians, knowing that Zeus holds power over her. “I was a queen of women once, before my husband bound me with chains and made me a queen of wives.” While this story is on its face about Penelope, Clytemnestra, Elektra and the rest, Hera is an engrossing and masterful character in her narration.

North’s prose is clever, funny and as wise as Penelope herself, with an eye for pleasing images as well as deeper meanings. In her capable hands, this ancient landscape is both fresh and timely. Ithaca is the first in a trilogy, and having come to know this three-dimensional Penelope, North’s readers will eagerly await the next two installments.


Rating: 8 dreams.

Come back Monday for my interview with North.

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

This classicist’s reconsideration of famous Greek myths from various female perspectives combines cultural and literary criticism, humor and wit.

Classicist Natalie Haynes (The Furies; A Thousand Ships) brings her prodigious expertise to Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths, a thorough consideration of the perspectives, reputations and visibility of some of ancient Greece’s most famous female characters. The title refers to the first correction Haynes offers: rather than the mythic Pandora’s box, Pandora in the original Greek opened a jar, which is only the first of several misconceptions. Not that there will ever be an authoritative version: even Homer, Haynes reminds us, drew on earlier sources. Myths “operate in at least two timelines: the one in which they are ostensibly set, and the one in which any particular version is written,” and Haynes has a firm grasp of numerous iterations. In her capable hands, Pandora and others appear as multifaceted, complex characters, even across conflicting accounts. Best of all, despite its impressive depth of research, Pandora’s Jar is never dry, and frequently great fun.

After the opening chapter’s title character, Haynes introduces readers to Jocasta, Helen, Medusa, the Amazons, Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Phaedra, Medea and finally Penelope. Readers unfamiliar with their stories are guided through the relevant versions. These myths involve traumas of marriage, motherhood, rape and betrayal; their themes are serious and unforgiving. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the misogyny and erasure that Pandora, the Amazons, Eurydice and others have experienced have surprisingly modern origins. “Not for the first time, we see that an accurate translation has been sacrificed in the pursuit of making women less alarming (and less impressive) in English than they were in Greek.” Among Haynes’s subjects, “some have been painted as villains (Clytemnestra, Medea), some as victims (Eurydice, Penelope), some have been literally monstered (Medusa),” but each contains depths: “Medusa is–and always has been–the monster who would save us.”

Haynes’s authorial voice is remarkable: expressive, nuanced, impassioned. Her tone is absolutely accessible, even conversational, and often laugh-out-loud hilarious. Haynes (also a stand-up comic) is as well versed in the modern world and its concerns as in the ancients. The book opens with 1981’s Clash of the Titans, and refers to Beyonce and Wonder Woman with the same ease and mastery as it does Homer, Ovid, Euripides, Aristotle, Aeschylus and many more ancients and more recent writers. Haynes’s assessments of the visual arts (from ancient pottery through Renaissance paintings to modern television and movies) offer another dimension in this meticulous study.

The classics are as relevant, subversive and entertaining as ever in this brilliant piece of work. Clever, moving, expert, Pandora’s Jar is a gem, equally for the serious fan or scholar of Greek myth, for the feminist or for the reader simply absorbed by fine storytelling across time and geography.


This review originally ran in the January 18, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 gazes.

The World’s Wife: Poems by Carol Ann Duffy

I got this title out of Pandora’s Jar (review still forthcoming!), and it’s every bit as good as I’d hoped. These are the women’s stories, from myths and classics and fairy tales, reconfigured. Many of these women are new to their tales, like Mrs. Aesop, Mrs. Sisyphus, Queen Kong, Frau Freud, and Pope Joan. Others already had their own myths before Duffy arrived to rewrite them: Penelope, Demeter, Circe, Salome. The book begins, for example, with “Little Red-Cap,” whose relationship to the Big Bad Wolf takes a different angle. A few of my very favorites are “Mrs. Midas” and “Mrs. Darwin,” although I’m also captivated by Duffy’s Eurydice, who was so relieved at the quiet of the Underworld and so sorry to see that damned Orpheus again. Clever, clever, cynical Eurydice.

I am pretty confident in calling these persona poems: each takes the first-person perspective of a female hero we’ve not heard enough of until now. Each has its charms and its surprises; I have been slow in writing this review over more than a week–unusual, and a bad hole to fall into usually, but they haven’t left the top of my mind in that time. I think Duffy was the perfect author to do this job, the new highlighting of both familiar traits and of delightful surprises. (Guess what body part Frau Freud assigns no fewer than 31 nicknames to in fifteen lines.) These poems are often funny, often fraught and moving, and always lovely. See these images: “a thousand windows, each with its modest peep-show / of boredom or pain, of drama, consolation, remorse.” And these judgments: “The Devil was evil, mad, but I was the Devil’s wife / which made me worse.” What else has Duffy written? I would read more poetry if it all worked like this: easy to access but inviting lots of processing time, deep and rich and wide.


Rating: 8 teeth of the rich.

movie mini-reviews: Clash of the Titans (1981) and Wonder Woman (2017)

Thanks to Natalie Haynes’s brilliant Pandora’s Jar (review forthcoming), I watched two movies over winter break that make reference to the Greek myths that I love so much.

Unsurprisingly, this one from 1981 that relies heavily on special effects plays more comically than originally intended; those special effects are almost unbelievably bad now… but the themes of the movie hold up well, and the hubris that forms such an essential turning point in the story still rings true, and fits with the Greek myths it arises from (where hubris was such a frequent theme). Clash of the Titans mashes up its myths: Medusa’s head will be weaponized against the Kraken, so Scandinavian meets Greek, but who cares: it’s actually quite fun, and the female love interest is less useless than she might have been, for her time. (Natalie Haynes writes, “It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Clash of the Titans kraken is so named purely for the delight of audiences in hearing Laurence Olivier – who plays Zeus – say, ‘Release the kraken.’ For the record, I consider this a perfectly legitimate reason to ignore any amount of mythological chronology and geography.”)

Fairly wacky, and hasn’t aged extraordinarily well (special effects!!), but still diverting, and I’m pleased to know where Haynes got her start into the myths. She’s doing them better justice herself, though.

Wonder Woman of 2017, on the other hand, was a fine romp, and I had a much easier time getting into the groove. (One wonders what this will look like in another 36 years.) There is a large dose of romance at its heart, even as the movie dances around that concept, and the astonishing good looks of leads Gal Gadot and Chris Pine make a difference. But the girl-power Amazonian island is both an appealing concept and nicely portrayed visually here, too. From their man-free paradise, Gadot’s Diana thrusts herself into the “real world” of World War I, which offers only horrors by contrast. The movie does a decent job of portraying both the light and the dark, and combines humor (Diana being “not from around here”) with pathos (war) engagingly. There’s no question this one relies on visual appeal, but that can be lovely when done well. And if it’s a bit of a simplification (of both myth and complicated gender dynamics), it’s still an empowering adventure tale. I do recommend.

The Hero by Lee Child (audio)

Not a Jack Reacher novella, but an essay. Lee Child (as himself, for the first time in my reading experience) explores the concept of “the hero,” as archetype and as cultural tradition, in this hour-and-change. It opens with the history of opium, or rather of humans’ relationship to opium, in its various forms, as revealed by the archaeological record. This brings us to the book’s subject via that coined name for an opium derivative: heroin, as relates to hero. Etymology as guiding principle! I love it! Some of the reviews on Goodreads are laughably harsh, but that’s an issue of people not appreciating etymology or failing to grasp the concept of “essay” (and to be fair, some of these poor souls thought they were getting a Reacher novella. Which actually I did as well, but I transition between Reacher and the essayistic form more easily than some).

From opium and heroin we move through archaeology and the history and development of human societies (comparison of homo sapiens to homo neanderthalensis), including the move from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture, always with a focus on the developing importance of storytelling. Storytelling, Child writes, is a survival mechanism, part of evolution. “Encouraging, empowering, emboldening stories… somehow made it more likely the listener would still be alive in the morning.” Stories are instructive, he explains, and developed from the first use of language which was strictly nonfiction. There was no evolutionary advantage to claiming that there was a predator over the next rise, or prey or berries to be had around the next bend of the river, if it wasn’t true. The move to fiction was a big jump, and had to serve other purposes. Encouraging, empowering, emboldening, and instructing. The girl who met a tiger and ran fast and got away; later, the girl who met a tiger but she carried an axe and successfully fought it off.

Which brings me to a feature of this essay that I appreciate: that it centers women. Child tracks his own link to early homo sapiens and homo sapiens sapiens through the female line. As his own mother had no female child, he considers that line to have died out. Women tend to be the storytellers, and the early protagonists, in the histories he tells. It’s refreshing, when history is so often male-centered.

Another central feature is the importance of language, etymologies, and the joys and rigors of linguistics. (Child’s daughter Ruth is a linguist.) Words matter; and they tell stories. Rivals were originally in competition for rivers or for riverfront real estate. Heroin is named for the concept of the hero.

Reacher’s usual confidence in making logical connections and claiming theories is recognizable here as Child’s own. I’m not an academic in the field of human evolution as told through the archaeological record, nor am I a linguist; I have the sense that he sets forth some theories that are perhaps less than orthodox, but he does so with great assurance. It’s a style of writing that works well for me. This is Reacher as an academic. Jeff Harding’s narration feels spot-on.

A contemplation of language, story, and the archetypal (and ever-evolving) hero in human history: if this stuff sounds like your cuppa, and especially if you like Reacher too, do yourself a favor and check out this novella-length essay. It’s engrossing. (Also, there’s a nice, representative sample available here. Or another here.) Or if you just want a laugh, go check out those Goodreads reviews. Not every book for every reader…


Circe by Madeline Miller (audio)

Madeline Miller, winner of the Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles, follows with another retelling from Homer’s great works with Circe. Remember, Circe was the witch-goddess who turned Odysseus’s men to swine on her enchanted island, then slept with him, and successfully tempted him to stay with her there for a year before he was able to tear himself away and continue on his ill-fated journey home (eventually successful in that he gets there, but not in too many other senses). Circe is the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and a nymph named Perse.

I had no idea that Circe had such an extended backstory – I knew her only from the Odyssey. Her story is further enlarged upon in Miller’s lovely telling here: her birth and childhood in the halls of the gods, ignored and unliked by her immortal parents, teased and picked on by the nymphs. Her love of the fisherman Glaucus, and his transformation; his love for the nymph Scylla, and Circe’s spell that transforms her in turn to the monster Scylla we know (again, from the Odyssey and other sources). Her minor role in the punishment of Prometheus, another god with a sympathy for mortals, and her eventual banishment to the island Aeaea (pronounced in this audiobook as ai-aye-uh). Then, her centuries (recall, Circe is immortal) on the island, developing her skills of witchcraft and enjoying a few sexual liaisons: first, with Hermes; later, with Daedalus; and eventually with her most famous guest, Odysseus.

Spoilers follow below (in white text – highlight to read). These are features of Circe’s history that come from myth; but they were stories I’d never encountered before, for all my love of Odysseus’s story, so they may be new for some of you, as well.

We get a lushly detailed version of Circe’s turning men to swine episodes, from her point of view and more justified than in Homeric tellings. We meet Odysseus, well into the length of Circe; and while it’s all been lovely, I have of course been leaning toward this event. Well, Odysseus through Circe’s eyes is rather a different beast (no pun intended), although recognizable. They have a relationship; his men get restless; he prepares to leave, but not before Circe (following a message from Hermes) passes on the prophecy regarding his visit to the underworld. She advises him; he pours the blood and waits for Tiresias, etc. (Pardon my glossing; this is where I know the story well.) And then… After his departure, and without his knowledge, Circe gives birth to Odysseus’s son, Telegonus. His name is a play on that of Telemachus, Odysseus’s older son with Penelope; it also means ‘born afar,’ which for Circe means born far from his father’s land of Ithaca, yes, but also far from her own family – far from the whole world, you might say. Telegonus is a difficult baby but a fine young man.

From his birth, the grey-eyed goddess Athena tries to kill him, but she won’t say why. Because of this threat, Circe worries. She spins massive spells that bear down on her; she works herself weary to protect her child; and she shelters him beyond even the average protective mother. But of course, she can’t keep him away from the world forever. It is Hermes, in fact, who secretly helps him build a boat with which to leave sheltering Aeaea. Telegonus is determined to go find his father. In one of her acts of astonishing strength, Circe wins the poison tail of the older-than-old sea god Trigon, with which she poison-tips a spear for Telegonus – to keep him safe, she thinks. But as is so often the case in Greek myth, this poison spear instead becomes the instrument of fulfilling another prophecy. In an accident, born of the miscommunication of their first meeting, Telegonus’s spear grazes Odysseus, and the yearned-for father dies. I had never known how Odysseus died! Telegonus ends up bringing Penelope and Telemachus back home to Aeaea with him, which Circe does not initially appreciate; but more unforeseen events will arise from here, not all bad. (I have to leave something untold, don’t I.)

Whew.

I was exhilarated by the retelling of Odysseus’s time spent with Circe, and its fallout, following him beyond the end of the Odyssey. All of Circe was compelling and well-told, with style; but I was always waiting for this, the headline act. I was intrigued by a different version of Odysseus than the one I’ve known before. Miller’s is a testier, more temper-prone, less admirable man. And while I don’t like having my heroes messed with, this worked out well for me. Miller’s Odysseus fits within Homer’s; they are not at odds. He was always a little apt to cruelty, and certainly self-serving, the cunning one. And Circe’s perspective necessitated the changes, I think.

A feminist retelling? I suppose, in the spirit of Atwood’s Penelopiad or Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, the women’s version might always read that way. I feel like that’s a simplification, though. It might be better classified as a correction of “history told by victors.” The victors tend to be men, but it’s not just that; it’s their power and ruthlessness and erasure of others. This is at least as much about correcting erasure (generally) as it is about the woman’s POV. Although, those men to swine, man. Well done, Miller.

I do love this Circe, who is (especially when younger) mercurial and passionate, stronger than she realizes (in her witchcraft, yes, but in other ways as well), and eventually a crafty and wise woman. She is loyal and devoted but also clever and practical. She is, in fact, Odysseus’s match. For fans of the mythology, I feel there is much to love here.

And for those less familiar, still: the storytelling is nuanced and full and rich. It might perhaps drag a bit, especially as we wait for Odysseus to appear (or is that just those of us who do know the original stories, and feel he’s the headline?); it’s a longish book. But episodes along the way intrigue and compel, too. I loved the Daedalus/Minotaur subplot.

This audio version, read by Perdita Weeks, is luscious, with a rich accent I’d call vaguely British (I am not good with accents). (Weeks is Welsh.) It feels… sumptuous. This lends a certain effect to the novel that may not suit every reader; it’s a bit grand; but it felt right for the story and for Circe’s larger-than-life (indeed, immortal) story. I’d spend another 12 hours this way, easy. I can’t wait for what’s next from Madeline Miller.

Circe is absolutely recommended for fans of the Greek myths, and for anyone who likes a good, involved, winding yarn about men and women and gods and power struggles and grudges and fantastic magic, and more.


Rating: 8 ground-up leaves.

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

This surreal, riverine, gender-bending retelling of Oedipus Rex will fascinate and fire the imagination.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, Everything Under is a dreamy, twisty-turning tale set in modern Oxford but calling on mythology and upturning societal norms. Daisy Johnson’s first novel (following the story collection Fen) requires its readers to wonder and follow along for a while before its connections begin to form, but the payoff for that patience is well rewarded.

“The places we are born come back.” At the novel’s opening, Gretel is a lexicographer who mostly keeps to herself, caught up in her mysterious past: “I’d always understood that the past did not die just because we wanted it to.” She lives in a remote cottage with her mother, Sarah, whom she has recently found and brought home. Then time shifts, and for much of the book the reader sees Gretel’s unusual childhood, and the long stretch of adulthood during which she searched for her missing mother.

Gretel grows up living with Sarah on a river, in a houseboat that never moves. They forage for food and remain apart from society: “River people aren’t like other people. You won’t see the police down here.” They make up their own language, words that make sense only to them. It is a watery world of shifting gender identities and slippery, changing rules. Gretel is shaped by self-sufficiency, words, fluidity and a fear: something under the water called the Bonak. When she is 16, her mother disappears, leaving Gretel to take care of herself.

In the flashback chapters, an enigmatic third character appears. “What happened to Marcus?” Gretel asks her mother, in the later timeline when they live together again, the older woman having lost her memory and the words that mattered so much. But it takes many more pages to reveal who Marcus is.

Many chapters are named for settings: repeatedly, “The River,” where Gretel grew up; “The Cottage,” where she lives as an adult; and “The Hunt,” when she was actively searching for Sarah. In those chapters on “The Hunt,” Gretel explores the countryside near the river, visiting a couple who lost their teenaged daughter years ago. She meets a failed prophetess, collects a stray dog and excavates her memories. This action is every bit as wandering, confused, seeking and amnesiac as Gretel herself.

This is a complex plot with profound themes: a monster under the water, the shape of fear itself; the importance of language; the death grip of the past; fate versus free will; flexible gender identities; unanswered questions. Everything Under remakes the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus, with its prophecy that will be fulfilled, no matter how strangely it must twist. Johnson’s singular, hallucinatory storytelling is well up to her book’s ambitious form. The result is spellbinding.


This review originally ran in the October 29, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 rolls of cling wrap.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

This retelling of the Trojan War by one of the women on the side of defeat is essential, and essentially human.

The Iliad is the story of the Trojan War told by the victors, and by men. At long last, another perspective is offered, in Booker Prize-winner Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. Briseis was queen of a city near Troy and, after it fell to the Greeks, she was given as prize of honor to Achilles. After Apollo compelled him to forfeit a concubine, Agamemnon took Briseis for his own. This indignity inspires Achilles’s famous sulk, which begins the Iliad.

In the tradition of Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, The Silence of the Girls is a much-needed retelling. Where men sing of honor and glory, women experience a different war. They are controlled by men: by their fathers and husbands, and then by their captors. Briseis is beautiful and royal; she hates her new status as concubine, but sees the far worse treatment of the “common women” who sleep under the Greeks’ huts, with their dogs, and are used by any man who pleases. She is clever and gives nuanced portraits of many characters in the Greek encampment below Troy’s walls. She is proud, angered by the indignities of slavery. One of the book’s themes is the question of authorship: she knows that it is Achilles’s story that the world will hear, but she searches for her own within narratives of men and war.

Strong, beautiful Achilles is cold, but stops short of cruelty. Gentle Patroclus eventually befriends Briseis. Ajax, Agamemnon, Odysseus and Nestor are profiled; but equally important are the other slave women. Briseis has friends, allies and antagonists among them, but always considers their struggles. For example, Ajax’s concubine is one of several women who recommend pregnancy above all other strategies. Briseis does not love her captors. But one of her revelations involves how the Trojans will survive, in the end: the sons of the Greeks will remember the Trojan lullabies their captive mothers sang to them.

The Silence of the Girls, like the classic it’s modeled on, is an epic. Briseis’s uncertain situation brings tension and momentum. At just 300 pages, this novel feels much bigger than it is, but is never heavy. Even with the atrocities, violence and loss it portrays, the protagonist’s thoughtful, compassionate point of view emphasizes humanity. It would be too much to say she weighs both sides of an issue evenly; she is loyal to her family and angry with her captors, but she also sees the tragedy in ranks of young Greek boys killed.

This mature, reflective narrative manages the cataloging of Homer’s telling (how many tripods offered, how many bowls of wine mixed), but with a grace and an interest in individual people that is fresh and novel. Barker uses metaphor and animal imagery deftly. Her prose flows easily, like storytelling between friends. It’s an absolute pleasure to read for any devoted fan of the Iliad, but equally accessible to those new to the Trojan story; indeed, The Silence of the Girls might make the perfect entry.


This review originally ran in the August 9, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 waves.

reread: Pieces of White Shell by Terry Tempest Williams

This is one of a few rereads and re-reviews, as I work my way into this semester’s project: my critical essay about the use of material things in Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemons, Terry Tempest Williams’s Pieces of White Shell, and a handful of Scott Russell Sanders’s essays. Original review here.


The importance of this book to me can hardly be overstated, as I’ve read it many times since my childhood. It offers many possible annotation subjects: the dreamy quality of the stories Williams tells; the line between fact and fiction; the liberal use of other writers’ words to compile her own impressions; the interplay between Mormon and Navajo traditions; her study of storytelling as communication and education across generations. But here I am most interested in her use of objects as an organizing principle.

Williams’s chapters are organized by the items she keeps in a leather pouch on her desk at the Utah Museum of Natural History, where she works as museum curator. The prologue opens: “Out of my pouch falls a sprig of sage.” This prologue is different from the rest of the book in that it is set in Williams’s family home and tradition, while the rest of the book stays with the Navajo and her work life. Sage backgrounds her home. Chapter one, “Curator,” presents the pouch. Its first two paragraphs read,

I am a collector. On my desk sits a small leather pouch, weatherbeaten, full of mementos of the desert. I have carried it with me everywhere in Navajoland. It is my link with the Diné, as they call themselves. I am shy. The people are shy. The objects inside give us courage to speak.

I shake the objects out of their pouch and spread them across my desk. What stories they tell: a sprig of sage; rocks, sand, and seeds; turquoise, obsidian, coral; pieces of white shell; yucca; a bouquet of feathers bound by yarn; coyote fur; a bone from Black Mountain; deerskin; wool; a potshard and some corn pollen. Wait–something is missing. I shake the pouch four more times and from the bottom of the bag rolls out the Storyteller, a clay figurine from Jemez.

This list of objects forms the rest of the chapter titles. The prologue is subtitled “A Sprig of Sage,” and the rest following chapter 1, “Curator,” proceed: “Rocks, Sand, and Seeds,” “Turquoise, Obsidian, and Coral,” etc. down the list. “Storyteller” is followed by “Home,” and then an epilogue, acknowledgements, notes, and bibliography. With just a few exceptions, the pouch’s contents neatly form the table of contents. As a writer who has always struggled with titles, this neatness appeals to me.

Within each chapter, the object or objects offer entry into stories, folklore, natural history, and personal musings. The connections between object and story are often tenuous: they make sense to Williams, and she is content to leave them sketched. My first impression is that she follows her mind where it wanders without much explicit mapping of those wanderings for her reader. Let me look closer at how each chapter title describes its contents.

The sprig of sage is the Utah landscape that Williams and her family and her Mormon culture belong to; it leads her to family stories. The rocks, sand, and seeds are the geography of Navajoland (the Colorado Plateau), and this chapter lets her tell the story of that land both through the science of geography and through Navajo mythology. Turquoise, obsidian, and coral are colors: of the desert, and of Navajo mythology again. Pieces of white shell are vestiges of the ocean that once covered Navajoland, and this leads her to an old world and old traditions, again accessed in part through myth. Yucca is soap, tradition, and the traditional ceremony surrounding a Navajo woman’s first menses.

A bouquet of feathers bound by yarn is classic Terry Tempest Williams: her obsession with birds, and their place in the myth and culture and ecology of the region. Here she tells stories of communing with a great horned owl, and of attending a powwow. Coyote fur is also obvious, allowing a way in to Coyote/Trickster stories. A bone from Black Mountain is a storytelling opportunity: Williams picks up a bone and dreams, imagines herself shrinking to Flea and listening in on the storytelling of the animals on the mountain. The chapter ends with a lesson about the nature of storytelling.

Deerskin begins the reentry of Williams’s own family, as her father’s and brothers’ hunting traditions meet the Navajo Deerhunting Way. Wool is a connection to the Navajos’ sheepherding tradition. A potshard and some corn pollen lets Williams imagine her way into the ancient world of the Anasazi, the Navajos’ precursors in the region. The Storyteller reminds her of two women in particular that she’s known; the reader recognizes that Williams is herself a storyteller, as well, with all the ritual and roles associated. The outlier final chapter, “Home,” re-grounds Williams back in the present, in her office at the Utah Museum of Natural History.

I can see now that these objects each lead Williams into history, myth, place, and culture, associatively. In fact, it’s a more consistent, standard strategy than it immediately appeared to me–almost a formula, but with a feeling more intuitive and natural than that implies.

Within chapters there is an organization to admire, too. Many chapters both start and end with an image, or with the object itself, circular. This keeps the reader grounded in the objects and the images and associations they call up. It is part of what makes my overall impression of this book as both simple and profound: the pattern brings the reader back around, always, so that she remembers the objects that brought us here. Williams deals in concepts that ask her reader to stop and think, but she grounds them in easily grasped things. The chapter titled “A Bouquet of Feathers Bound by Yarn” begins with the word “birds” and ends with “birds burst into song”; the title phrase occurs in both the next-to-first and next-to-last sentences.

As a writer intimidated by both titles and the conclusion and tying-up of essays, this structure appeals to me very much as a strategy to make my own work easier to organize. I appreciate that the effect on me as reader was not of a formula but of an artful form. I think there may be a shortcut here for me. In my critical essay, there are several aspects of Pieces of White Shell that I hope to mine for my own work: overall organization of a collection, the theming of individual chapters or essays, and things standing in for stories or concepts, as ways in.


Rating: 9 coyotes return.