Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #2: The Silence of the Girls & Circe

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As a teenager, I worked my way through both popular versions of Greek myths and stories, primarily compiled by Roger Lancelyn Green, and novel-length retellings such as Adele Geras’s Troy. As an adult, I’ve tended to steer away from modern versions of classical stories – making exceptions for complete remakes like Kamila Shamsie’s take on Antigone – and was recently rather unimpressed by Colm Toibin’s House of Nameswhich focuses on the prelude and postlude to the siege of Troy. I was surprised, therefore, at how closely Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls gripped me from the start. Barker, unlike Toibin, focuses on the most famous bit of The Iliad – the siege of Troy itself by the Greek army, Patroclus’s death, Achilles’s furious return to the fight, and how Hector’s body is dragged many times around the walls of Troy before the city finally falls. At the end of the novel, there are details borrowed from Euripides’s Trojan Women, such as the killing of Trojan children by Greek soldiers.

I was less familiar with the first half of the story told here, which deals with Achilles’s anger with Agamemnon after the latter demands his war prize, an enslaved girl, Briseis, as compensation for the loss of his own ‘prize’, Chryseis. Briseis narrates the first section of The Silence of the Girls, and it was her unmediated first-person narrative that I found most impressive. Barker shows us how the women in the camp remain silent in the presence of more powerful men, but speak up when they are alone, offering their own take on the familiar characters of these epics. After meeting her fellow ‘prizes’, Briseis learns a great deal about the men whom they ‘belong’ to:

Hecamede… had been awarded to Nestor… as his prize for strategic thinking, since he was too old to take part in the actual raid.

“Too old for anything?” I ventured to hope.

Uza… hooted with laughter. “Don’t you bloody well believe it! They’re always the worst, old men”… Uza was Odysseus’s prize. No problems there, apparently. All very straightforward. When it was over, he’d lie looking up at the ceiling and indulge in long, rambling reminiscences about his wife, Penelope, to whom he was utterly devoted…

Ritsa turned to me. “What about Achilles? What’s he like?”

“Fast,” I said, and left it at that.

As with any oppressed group, the enslaved women form complex social hierarchies between themselves, based not on their status before slavery (Briseis was married to the king of Lyrnessus), but on qualities that now have more tradeable value, such as youth and beauty, and the attitude of the men who now own them. There’s debate over where the fragile Chryseis fits into all of this:

In one respect, as Uza pointed out, she was better off than most of us: Agamemnon couldn’t get enough of her. “Never sends for anybody else,” she said. “I’m amazed she’s not pregnant.”

He prefers the back door,” Ritsa said. She’d know. Ritsa had a jar of goose fat mixed with crushed roots and herbs that the common women round the campfires relied on if they’d had a particularly rough night.

Later on, the narrative starts to switch between Briseis’s account and Achilles’s third-person perspective, and while this narrative choice is necessary to cover some events that Briseis is not witness to, I found that the novel lost some of its power once its voice was divided. Nevertheless, Barker writes convincingly about religious belief, the duties that the men believe they owe to the gods, and Achilles’s relationship with Patroclus, which is reinvented as a profound, but non-sexual, love, although the other men are convinced they’re sleeping together.

There’s a deliberate use of modern terminology throughout the novel, which on the whole, worked well; while there’s nothing more jarring than a really anachronistic term, making historical characters speak in stilted sentences (which in this case could never be ‘accurate’ given the language difference) is alienating, and gives the false impression that slang and abbreviations are modern inventions. I particularly liked this rowdy chant that the men sing about Achilles:

Why was he born so beautiful?

Why was he born at all?

He’s no fucking use to anyone!

He’s no fucking use at all!

He may be a joy to his mother,

But he’s a pain in the arsehole to me!

This use of language, including some of the phrasing of the First World War poets elsewhere in the narrative, only enhances the power of this wonderful novel.

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Seven years ago, when her debut novel, The Song of Achilles, won what was then the Orange Prize, it was rumoured that Madeline Miller was writing a retelling of the Odyssey. Instead, her second novel takes a slightly different tack. Circe takes the witch that Odysseus famously encounters on an isolated island and gives us an alternative perspective on some of the most famous stories from Greek myth and legend. The novel begins when Circe is a mistreated nymph at her father’s court, exiled after transforming one of her fellow nymphs into the sea monster, Scylla. On her island, Circe encounters first Jason, and then Daedalus, hearing stories of her sister Pasiphae, her minotaur child, and the labyrinth Daedalus built to contain him. Her uneasy truce with the messenger god, Hermes, allows her to learn what happens to these people after they leave her. However, it’s only after Odysseus arrives that Circe really becomes deeply involved in a storyline in her own right.

It’s also been seven years since I read The Song of Achilles, but I remember being impressed by the way that Miller wove little interludes into the central narrative of the siege of Troy while not allowing the novel to feel too tangential. In contrast, much of the first half of Circe is distractingly episodic – not epic, but not really mythical either. The novel only really gets going at the halfway mark, after Circe is raped by a ship’s captain, and vows to transform all men who land on her island into pigs. This middle section is mesmerising, and from this point on, Circe begins to become more of an agent, rather than the recipient of curses, punishments, and tales. However, I still felt profoundly disappointed in her characterisation for much of the novel. She seems to be designed to win the reader’s sympathy rather than positioned as a complex mix of god, nymph and witch. All she really wants is to live the life of a mortal, to have love and children, and she only becomes truly vengeful after her rape. While Miller, like Barker, obviously wants to give us a female perspective on these male-dominated legends, I felt that Circe was much less successful in this respect than The Silence of the Girls. The morality was a bit black-and-white for me; eventually we find out that Odysseus is also a villain, overwriting what was most interesting about his characterisation in The Song of Achilles and in much of this novel. Miller’s writing is still excellent, but if only one classical retelling can make it to the Women’s Prize shortlist this year, I’d prefer it to be The Silence of the Girls.

 

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20 thoughts on “Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #2: The Silence of the Girls & Circe

  1. I had exactly the opposite reaction to these two books. I found the Barker really disappointing because for me it was still the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus and the sorrow of Priam for his son’s death that brought the book to life. That wasn’t what I had been expecting or looking for. ‘Circe’, on the other hand, read for me as a fascinating exploration of the way in which women have been used by men through the ages as a means of avoiding responsibility for their own actions. Both books are coming up on one of my book group lists during the summer, so it will be interesting to see how others divide over them.

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    • That’s interesting. That wasn’t how I felt about the Barker at all – the scene with Priam, and Achilles’s grief, were, as ever, powerful, but I was really engaged by Briseis’s first-person sections of the story, and not as gripped by the third-person sections that primarily dealt with men. Re. Circe, I guess I found it rather simplistically feminist, with bad men and good women – although Daedalus is an exception to this, as are the two sons.

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  2. Ooh, see, I really liked the way Odysseus was handled in Circe – Telemachus’s description of him as falling ever further into the grip of depression, rage, and post-traumatic stress after he returns to Ithaca felt both historically and emotionally plausible. And I really enjoyed the ending, particularly what happens to Penelope. Barker is fantastically evocative, but I was frustrated by the fact that she included chapters from male soldiers’ POVs at all; it diluted the impact of the women’s voices too much for me.

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    • I don’t know, I see what she was trying to do with Odysseus, but it didn’t quite come off for me – perhaps because I found Circe herself so whitewashed and bland. I definitely agree that the third-person, male -dominated sections in Barker weren’t as strong, and retrod familiar material.

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      • PS Forgot to put that I’d have been more onboard with the PTSD reading, but I felt it was implied that Odysseus was pretty awful all along, e.g. only pretending he didn’t want to go to war.

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  3. Great reviews! I am really looking forward to both of this books as my reading of the Women’s Prize longlist hasn’t been super successful recently but these books are right up my alley. I am a huge fan of mythological retellings. I am not sure though how well ‘ll be able to stop myself from comparing these (and especially the Barker) to my all-time-favourite book Kassandra (by Christa Wolf).

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  4. I am so impressed that you’re following not one but two literary prizes this spring! I really don’t care for updates of Greek myths, so I doubt I’ll read either of these, but I’ll keep your preference for the Barker (two of whose other books I’ve read) in mind.

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    • I imagine you’d enjoy the Barker more if you don’t care for classical retellings, as it’s less reference-heavy and feels more modern and immediate.

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  5. I could not agree more with both of these reviews. I thought The Silence of the Girls was remarkable and Circe was… uneven and heavy-handed, sadly, though it had a lot of potential and a lot of good elements. But I was much more impressed by Barker’s novel, though I absolutely agree with your critique about the unwieldy POV shifts.

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  8. Great reviews – I really enjoyed reading them. I have to admit I have not read the books, but I am also very happy to read a review of Circe which is not completely positive. It is especially curious that you mention the character of Circe and black-and-white morality as some of the negatives. I imagine both of these can make a book somehow less complex and convincing.

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