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.

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.

Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters by Charles Fréger

A rich collection of photography explores the Japanese mythology that both celebrates and protects longstanding traditions.

yokainoshima

Yokainoshima is a lushly beautiful collection by photographer Charles Fréger (Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage), with commentary by experts on his Japanese subjects. Yōkai are “spirits, ghosts and other monsters,” or, literally, “bewitching apparitions.” On Yokainoshima, the “island of monsters,” and in Japanese culture, these gods and ghosts emphasize links to other worlds, in which humans are not the only inhabitants.

The bulk of Yokainoshima is filled with nearly 200 glossy color images of masked and costumed performers representing specific yōkai in grassy fields, beaches, forests and snowfields. Standing alone, these powerful, vibrant photographs offer stories and evoke emotions. Descriptions of the depicted characters, groups and customs (located at the back of the book) elucidate the mysteries offered by the images: seasonal rites requesting fertility, abundance and protection. Short essays portray a culture defined by its spirits, monsters and connections, enriching Fréger’s striking visual art.


This review originally ran in the November 22, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 pieces of straw.

The Motion of Puppets by Keith Donohue

This reworking of the myth of Eurydice features a woman locked in a world of sentient puppets.

the motion of puppets

With The Motion of Puppets, Keith Donohue (The Boy Who Drew Monsters) evokes a bizarre underworld with an array of mythological references in a story of lovers seeking reunion. Newlyweds Kay and Theo Harper have come to Quebec for the summer, where she works as an acrobat in a cirque and he wrestles with a work in translation between semesters teaching French literature in New York City. The first line of the novel reads: “She fell in love with a puppet.” And this is where the trouble begins.

A puppet shop in Quebec’s Old City draws Kay’s attention daily, but the door is always locked, the lights off. One night, when returning from a party after midnight, she fears she is being followed and, finding the door unlocked for once, slips inside. Theo contacts the police when she does not return home, but no trace can be found of her. The rest of The Motion of Puppets alternates between their two experiences. Theo searches Quebec all summer for his wife, then returns to New York City and his work, distracted and mourning. Meanwhile, Kay adjusts to new circumstances: she has become a puppet. Along with the other puppets shut away in the shop she once admired, she is able to speak and move on her own only between midnight and dawn–once she learns how to move again in her new body. Eventually, she takes pleasure in performing (with the help of a puppeteer) for audiences, as she had in the cirque. And she makes new friends, especially with the one puppet who also remembers and yearns for her human form.

This dreamy, sinister novel alludes widely to history, literature and legend. Theo’s translation project is a biography of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose work involved scientific knowledge of human and animal locomotion. Muybridge shot and killed his much younger wife’s lover, a story that preoccupies Theo, also an ardent–if not clingy–older husband. One of Theo’s colleagues is a professor of antiquities who is equally eager to find relationships between past and present. Most pointedly, however, Kay’s predicament is a reference to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which Orpheus misses his wife so terribly that Hades agrees to let her leave the underworld and return to life with him, under one diabolical condition. In Donohue’s novel, Theo’s ability to save Kay from her incarnation as a puppet relies on his ability to trust her. But first, she must make him recognize her in her new form.

An engrossing novel of love, fancy and enchantment, The Motion of Puppets offers a perfectly wrought moodiness, detailed settings and an unsettling plot. Kay and Theo are underdeveloped as characters, but serve the mythic proportions of the story well. Smart, eerie and moving, this puppet show holds the potential to transport its reader to another world.


This review originally ran in the August 30, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 hinges.

Ithaca: A Novel of Homer’s Odyssey by Patrick Dillon

This retelling of the Odyssey gives Telemachus more voice than ever before.

ithaca

Homer’s Odyssey recounts Odysseus’s 10-year journey home from the Trojan War, to where his wife and son await him. His adventures along the way take center stage. Ithaca, Patrick Dillon’s retelling, resets that center to the son. With substantially more insight into Telemachus than readers have had before, this version also offers a more fallible Odysseus, with all the drama and yearning of the original.

Dillon remains true to Homer’s setting, but the novel is told in Telemachus’s voice, and the weighty absence of a father he never met defines his existence. At 16, he worries over his role and responsibilities, and his inability to protect his mother: he has no one to teach him how to fight. These interior workings bring Odysseus’s iconic son to light as a nuanced and fully formed character. When the wise warrior Nestor assigns his daughter to be Telemachus’s traveling companion, the story gets an appealing twist: Polycaste is headstrong and capable, and her friendship has much to offer Telemachus. The gods are less present this time around; Telemachus is openly dubious. Veterans of the Trojan War roam Greece as bandits and vagabonds.

Though only slight details are changed, Ithaca is a vibrant and fresh revival; Telemachus’s struggles are illuminated through the use of his own voice. The well-loved classic is present: Penelope is beautiful, determined, fading; the suitors are shocking; Menelaus and Helen fight bitterly; the aging Nestor tries to guide Telemachus true. Dillon’s achievement is in characterization while retaining the heart and passion of Homer.


This review originally ran in the July 8, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 arrows.

iDiOM Theater presents The Love of the Nightingale

nightingaleAnother perfectly lovely, intimate performance from iDiOM. (See an earlier one here.)

The Love of the Nightingale is a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker based on the Greek myth of Philomele. The iDiOM describes it as “a tale of sisterhood, betrayal, and revenge, in a poetic, beautiful, funny and modern retelling.” I’m not so sure about the modern part – it seems the play was written so that it could have been staged with or without modern dressings, but this version was fairly stripped down. There were a few moments of commentary on modern times by comparison to the tragedies of Philomele’s story. Essentially, it felt very Greek to me: deeply tragic, gory, inexorability revolving around a fatal flaw; willing and inevitable murdering of immediate family members. Wonderful stuff, if you’re in the mindset for a really dark storyline.

The acting was as wonderful as ever. These are extraordinary players, and I feel lucky to see them. Not that there weren’t a few faults: when the chorus speaks in unison (particularly the male chorus), they are not quite in unison, so their words are garbled; and the set’s steps and platforms, constructed of wood, squeaked and creaked loudly enough to obscure some of the actors’ speech. (Also, we found use of a ventriloquist-style dummy for the young child an odd choice. I think it would have been less distracting to just have an adult actor take the part.) As I’ve said before, though, these small imperfections just remind me that we are part of a small community watching incredibly talented but basically amateur performers do what they love.


Rating: 7 questions.

Arcadian Nights: The Greek Myths Reimagined by John Spurling

Classic Greek myths starring Herakles, Theseus and more are reborn in vivid, funny, fresh forms.

arcadian

From his home in a hillside Peloponnesian village, John Spurling (The Ten Thousand Things) charmingly retells some of Western literature’s best-known stories. He balances careful attention to the originals with his own humorous voice, honoring well-loved classics with a fresh eye.

Each section focuses on a hero: Perseus, Herakles, Apollo, Theseus and the ill-fated Agamemnon. Chapters begin and end with Spurling’s own Arcadian vista, on the Gulf of Argos, which inspires his imagination. Through these lenses, Arcadian Nights (re)familiarizes readers with the curse on the House of Atreus, the Twelve Labors and the complexly intertwining genealogies of mortals and immortals in a storied era somewhere between history and myth. Spurling notes commonalities with other cultures’ and religions’ fables, and infuses the established legends with added detail: imagined dialogue lends well-known characters extra personality, and Herakles gets a perfectly apt new piece of apparel. The occasional modernization enlivens the tales, as when the newly dead line up to cross the River Styx into Hades–it “was a little like going through security in an airport today”–but this is no clumsy 21st-century resetting of Aeschylus. Rather, Spurling’s gentle, clever wit complements the originals’ themes of heroism and romance, and their reminders of the importance of hospitality, humility and memory.

Spurling’s passion and enthusiasm and the best of Greek myth shine through this new version, equally appropriate to introduce new readers or reinvigorate the appetite of those who already honor such names as Zeus, Achilles, Athena, Poseidon and more.


This review originally ran in the February 16, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 golden apples.
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