Monthly Archives: May 2019

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

On my recent flight to Amsterdam I had intended to read another novel altogether. But I left that book in my suitcase by mistake, and it travelled in the aeroplane hold. So I found myself in the airport departures lounge with nothing to read. This was a small provincial airport with a limited branch of WH Smith. The Silence of the Girls  was the only book there that I had any interest in. It turned out to be ideal material for the short flight, and perfect bedtime reading for the next three nights. Amsterdam was as lovely as ever.

The Silence of the Girls  by Pat Barker

The story of the final days of the Trojan wars is told by Briseis, a young Trojan woman whose city is sacked. She had been married to a king but when the Greeks defeat the city and her husband is killed she becomes Achilles’s prize. 

Briseis is beautiful, and she becomes the bed-slave of the heroic fighter. Although she has become a slave she is aware of the politics of the Greek camp, the squabbling between the various kings, those considered to have prowess on the field of battle, and those who are ridiculed for staying behind the lines. 

Achilles and Agamemnon develop a feud when plague breaks out in the camp. Both men are proud and find it hard to deal with each other. In order to end the plague Agamemnon must give up his slave girl, but in return he demands to be awarded Briseis. And so she is turned over to another camp, but the feud is not ended. Achilles refuses to fight.

Eventually Achilles allows his great friend Patroclus to lead his men in his place and wearing his armour, and when he is killed Achilles swears to avenge him with Hector’s blood. And when he slays Hector the war begins to come to an end. Many men are dead, the Greeks prepare to return home after ten years of war. For the women nothing is over. They must accompany their new owners, accept their new status, and continue to be treated as the spoils of war.

Feminism in The Silence of the Girls

Women’s voices, like those of the defeated, are rarely heard in history. When you are women and defeated you can only expect silence. Pat Barker has taken this situation and turned it on its head. 

But she found that although most of the novel is narrated by Briseis and is the story of the women in the Greek camp, from about half way through to tell Achilles’s story she presents several sections in the third person. And in the second half of the novel it does seem that it is Achilles’s story. And for Briseis it has to be as her life and her future depend on his decisions and his actions. That he sees her as more of a person as his death approaches does not change that reality.

We do read a great deal about the lives of the women, first as they wait for their city to fall to the Greeks and then in the camp of their captors. There is rape, weaving (so much weaving), food preparation and serving, pregnancy, nursing the sick and wounded and even some bonds of affection emerge. The description of such women’s activities is not included in Homer’s Iliad, nor in Euripides’s The Trojan Women

And …

I wish the title had been different, The Silence of the Trojan Women, or even The Silence of the Women. The word ‘girl’ has been overused in titles recently. And although there are girls in this story, and awful things happen to them, mostly the story is concerned with the adults, who are women.

The story of the Trojan War is a compelling one. It lasted so long, it seemed to have such a romantic origin (Paris and Helen’s love), many Greek and Trojan heroes fought in it, and even the gods intervened. Pat Barker tells a good story in a very readable way. 

Short-listed for the Women’s Fiction Prize 2019. The winner will be announced on 5thJune.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (2018) Penguin 325pp

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The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

It is a surprise to me that I had never heard of this fantasy novel for children until I was researching for a book from the ‘40s to include in the Decades Project. I’m sure it would have appealed to me a decade later, full of the necessity for patience and sacrifice, ideas current when I was a girl. I would have lapped it up. I enjoyed my first reading, but with a more critical eye than my 12 year-old self would have brought.

This is the fifth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. I did not do this on purpose, but like the previous 4 choices, this novel has an orphan for its heroine. 

Original cover by Walter Hodges

The Little White Horse

The story is set in 1842, when 13 year-old Maria Merryweather, an orphan, must leave a comfortable life in London to live with a cousin in the West Country. She travels with her beloved governess Miss Heliotrope and her faithful but self-indulgent King Charles spaniel called Wiggins. 

Naturally she is anxious about her new home but she finds that it is an idyllic place, called Moonacre. Her cousin is the flamboyant, huge and welcoming Sir Benjamin Merryweather. There are other strong characters who are pleased that Maria has come to live there, including Wrolf, a kind of huge dog/lion, a horse (Periwinkle), the Old Parson and the even older retainer Digweed. The little white horse of the title makes just three appearances, offering hope to the young girl.

But this place is menaced by the Men from the Dark Wood. There is a tense and unhappy relationship between these Men and the Merryweathers having its origins in a centuries-old feud. And the adults of the place seem prone to separation from their life partners, often through their own quarrelsomeness.

Maria is determined to set all this right, which of course she does. But first she must overcome her own weaknesses, a fiery temper, a hot headedness and a little vanity. Above all she must make sacrifices to learn patience and perseverance. 

She is helped in this by the Old Parson, and by the kindness and hopes of the people and animals she meets. Maria brings reconciliation between the branches of the Merryweather family, peace to the valley and reunites two couples years after they were separated. It is not an easy path, but the adventures she has, especially when she strays into the halls of the Men from the Dark Wood led by Monsieur Cocq de Noir, are enough to keep one reading.

Themes

The many characters in this novel are all described in detail, each one having some characteristics that mean that have a special part to play in the story. 

Maria, though decidedly vain and much too inquisitive, was possessed of the fine qualities of honour and courage and fastidiousness, and Miss Heliotrope was entirely made of love and patience. (13)

Maria sees Sir Benjamin Merryweather for the first time.

But her cousin was really odd to look at, and once she started looking at him she found it very difficult to leave off. He was so tall and so broad that he seemed to fill the big doorway. His face was round and red and clean-shaven, and his big hooked nose put Miss Heliotrope’s entirely in the shade. He had three double chins, a large smiling mouth, and twinkling eyes of a warm tawny-brown, almost lost beneath bushy white eyebrows. His clothes, most scrupulously cared for, were very old-fashioned and most oddly assorted. (19)

And each person’s clothes are also described in detail, for they too reveal something of their attitude to life, including our heroine’s vanity.

In addition to sartorial details, we read a great deal about food. One of the worst sins of the Men from the Dark Wood is their theft of the food and cider of the villagers. Sausages for breakfast, picnics for the children and animals on their expeditions and the celebration tea. Marmaduke Scarlet, the magical chef, dreams of the menu he will conjure for feast. And Marmaduke does produce all this.

‘Plum cake. Saffron cake. Cherry cake. Iced fairy cakes. Eclairs. Gingerbread. Meringues. Syllabub. Almond fingers. Rock cakes. Chocolate drops. Parkin. Cream horns. Devonshire splits. Cornish pasty. Jam sandwiches. Lemon-curd sandwiches. Lettuce sandwiches. Cinnamon toast. Honey toast …’ (221-2)

If you need an explanation for this great list of delicious, mostly sugary food, remind yourself that the novel appeared at a time of war-time and post-war rationing and austerity. The Second World War is the backdrop to this novel. Maria is following the path of many children evacuated from London and the cities, to live in an unknown place, with unknown people for an unspecified length of time. Many children would have identified with her exile.

In addition, the Men from the Dark Wood (from Germany?) must be forgiven if the future is to be more peaceful. Reconciliation is required, and who better than the young to make this happen? 

Elizabeth Goudge knew the power of imagination and old stories to help with that healing. 

As this world becomes increasingly ugly, callous and materialistic it needs to be reminded that the old fairy stories are rooted in truth, that imagination is of value, that happy endings do, in fact, occur, and that the blue spring mist that makes an ugly street look beautiful is just as real a thing as the street itself. [The source of this quote is the Wikipedia page on Elizabeth Goudge.]

Elizabeth Goudge

Elizabeth Goudge (1900-1984) was the daughter of an academic theologian, so it is not surprising that her novel was threaded with Christian themes. But hers is a very humane and generous outlook and the Old Parson one of the most delightful characters in this novel. Especially as he sings and plays the fiddle with great gusto!

I was pleased to discover that Elizabeth Goudge was living in Marldon, near Compton and Berry Pomeroy Castles, when she wrote this novel – only 5 miles from where I live. She and her mother had come to Devon in 1939 for a holiday, and when war broke out they decided to stay. They lived here for 12 years.

Elizabeth Goudge was another prolific writer, of adult as well as children’s literature and her novel The Rosemary Tree (1956) was the subject of a plagiarism case in the 1990s. 

JK Rowling is quoted on the cover of the edition I used saying ‘I absolutely adored The Little White Horse. It had a cracking plot… It was scary and romantic in parts and had a feisty heroine.’ And she says that she followed Elizabeth Goudge by including the food her characters eat.

A footnote: The book was dedicated to Walter Hodges, who illustrated the original edition.

The Little White Horseby Elizabeth Goudge first published in 1946. I used the edition published by Lion Hudson in 1988. 238pp

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1950-59. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

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Harriet Hume by Rebecca West

This novel, Harriet Hume, has a subtitle, and the reader should note it: a London fantasy. Both the elements of fantasy and the passages relating to London are significant in this novel. In addition Rebecca West added a quotation from John Dryden to the title page:

… And like white witches, mischievously good …

This mischievous novel contrasts two attitudes to life and relates how they play out over five meetings across two decades or more between two lovers.

Harriet Hume

Harriet Hume is beautiful, rather strange and unorthodox, a concert pianist with strong ideas about beauty. We first meet her with Arnold Condorex, her lover, as they emerge from an afternoon of lovemaking in her Kensington home. They are deliciously happy together, but Harriet perceives that he intends to get on in the world. She has the ability to read his thoughts. Arnold Condorex is ambitious. While happy to love Harriet, he does not wish to sacrifice his ambitions for her, and she discovers that he will cast her aside for a more advantageous connection. They quarrel and separate.

They meet four more times, always in a part of London, Hyde Park and Portland Place where he has bought a magnificent house, and after an interval of some years. Each time Condorex has achieved more of his ambition to become someone important in politics. Harriet perceives he has achieved this through chicanery, a loveless marriage and conspiracy. He calls this last negotiation. He is in politics to win, not to ameliorate the lot of the people. Each time they meet they are drawn to each other, but also find it impossible to be together.

There are some moments of humour, such as the confusion between Pondh and Mondh. They might as well be the same place as far as Condorex is concerned, and he does indeed achieve a peerage as Lord Mondh.

And there is some engaging whimsy, such as the story Harriet tells her lover about the trees in her garden, who were once three society young ladies. And then there are two very sympathetic and tactful policemen who appear in the final scene, who are from a different era.

The couple are doomed to oppose each other, indeed they agree that they are opposites, and although he hates her for knowing the truth about him and blames her for his downfall when it comes, there is a sense in which they are better when they balance each other.

Yet they could not have been together. For one thing there is his sexism. He thinks of his wife Lady Ginevra in this way:

There was no occasion in life when she was not limp; no, not one. (158)

And a few pages later

… he saw the Lady Ginevra as she would be at this hour, dancing at the Embassy, limp in the limp arms of one of her own kind, like two anchovies side by side in a bottle. (177)

The terms he uses when he thinks of Harriet reveal his patriarchal attitude: slut, witch, poor lass, little wench, girl and so on. And when he thinks she has been having an affair with a man called Karinthy he is disapproving and xenophobic.

… it would be against nature if such loveliness were not enjoyed. Still, I could have wished it had not been a foreigner. (140) 

Karinthy is in fact a notable violinist of great age, and this reaction reveals much about Condorex.

The content of the novel is clearly not meant to be seen as realism. Harriet’s ability to read Condorex’s thoughts, her conjuring of fantastic stories, and above all the fanciful language used by Rebecca West remind the reader that this is a fantasy, a fable. I collected some examples of the vocabulary: infrangible, multitudinous, avow, perturbation, obdurate, orgulous (which means haughty or proud my dictionary tells me), languishment, complaisance … These are not words in everyday use and are a little affected even.

But the intent of the author is to set the values of the two characters against each other, and to reveal something of post war life in London. I don’t think that people write in this way or on these kinds of topics these days.

All of which makes it an interesting read, but does not hold the reader in the way, for example, her first novel The Return of the Soldier  does. 

Rebecca West 

Rebecca West lived a long and productive life. She was born in 1892 and Harriet Hume  was her third novel. She did not live as a young woman of her class was expected to. She had been a suffragette before the war and was a feminist and journalist. A provocative article calling HG Wells an ‘Old Maid among novelists’ led to their meeting, a long affair and a son born in 1914. She supported herself through her writing. She wrote and published a great deal of fiction, non-fiction and journalism and died in 1983 aged 90.

Harriet Hume: a London Fantasy by Rebecca West first published in 1929. I used the edition from Virago Modern Classics, published in 1980 with an introduction by Victoria Glendinning. 288pp I found it at Second Shelf in Soho.

Some relevant links

The Return of the Soldier  by Rebecca West in December 2018

Thoughts from Simon Lavery on Rebecca West, Harriet Humeon his blog Tredynas Days. 

The cover of the Virago edition shows a detail from ‘The Studio Door, Charleston’ by Vanessa Bell.

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You would have missed me by Birgit Vanderbeke

I read The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke in 2013, and reposted my review to coincide with #WITmonth in August 2015. My book group read that novel a little later. On every occasion it attracted much positive comment. In the post I praised the style of writing, long sentences, almost hypnotic rhythms, and the translation from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

So when my Peirene subscription brought me a second novel by Birgit Vanderbeke I was excited to read more of her work, and at the same time apprehensive in case it did not match the first book. It is not the policy of Peirene Pressto publish a second book by an author, but for this one they made an exception. And again I was very moved by her writing. And again it was translated by Jamie Bulloch.

You would have missed me

The short novel is told in the first person by a child who is part of a very dysfunctional family. She is in trouble as this early excerpt makes clear. 

I had my best idea when I was seven, because at the time I urgently needed to talk to someone, and when it occurred to me how I might go about that I sensed that it was a really good idea, although I didn’t realise quite how good until much later.

To be precise, it happened on my seventh birthday.

We were standing in our two-bedroom flat in the Promised Land and once again it was clear that I wouldn’t be getting a cat for my birthday.

I’d been wanting a kitten ever since we left the refugee camp. I was five back then. This was the third birthday in a row I wouldn’t be getting one.

You get used to disappointments, but in the long term they make you feel cold and empty inside, and you begin to lose heart. (9)

The setting is divided Germany in the ‘60s. The Promised Land is a housing complex for the workers and their families of a dye factory in the West.

The unnamed child is the unwanted offspring of two parents: an older mother from the East who is neglectful and selfish and harks back to a better time: before the war when she was engaged to the heir to a wealthy land-owning Nazi family. She is never satisfied with anything. The girl’s father is the son of a Belgian woman who migrated to Germany and his father is unknown. He is much younger than his wife. He suffered in a fire and his hands were badly damaged. They are not a happy couple.

As the child tells us about her seventh birthday, it emerges that she is the victim of both physical abuse (from her father) and mental abuse from both parents. She remembers a time in the refugee camp when she was befriended by a trio of older Germans who provided care, love, affection and some cultural stimulus. 

Inside her a voice, her own strong voice, is developing and it prompted her to stand up to a bully at school and eventually to her father. Her best idea is to be brave and to take risks, to consider her future. In the final scene she achieves this with a dramatic flourish.

Reading You would have missed me

It was clear from The Mussel Feast that the family stood, in part, for the East German state, the GDR. Like that family, specifically the father, it was paternalistic, oppressive and violent in response to transgressions. In this second novel both parents are neglectful and uncaring, they lie to her and are unable to provide for a child’s needs. Fortunately she thrives on the love shown her by her grandma (left behind in the GDR) and by three literate, story-loving old liberals in the refugee camp. Each of these, along with some other more positive social interactions as she grows up and help her hear her own voice, a voice of invention, humour and rebellion.

The reader must ask under what circumstances have we avoided missing this little girl: if she hadn’t be born, if she had escaped, if we had put the book down and not thought of her as so many others did? One answer is, ‘You would have missed me if I hadn’t found my voice’.

This is what Meike Ziervogel says about the decision to publish this novel.

Today, as in the past, people flee from one country to another in the hope of finding a better future. But how do children experience such displacement? How do they cope with traumas of a refugee camp? In this novel Birgit Vanderbeke goes back to her own childhood in the divided Germany of the 1960s. She shows how the little girl she once was saved herself by imagining countries on the far side of the world. A masterpiece of memory turned into fiction.

You would have missed me by Birgit Vanderbeke, first published in Germany in 2016. English translation published by Peirene Press in 2019 in the There be monsters series. 122pp

Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch 

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Seven Recommendations for Book Groups

On an art tour of the south of France recently I asked people about their reading recommendations, and in turn I was asked for mine. As such conversations developed they frequently referred to books discussed in reading groups. I was asked what I would recommend for book groups. In turn I asked my own group for their choices.

My Book Group’s reading choices

The criteria that emerged for making these recommendations were probably some combination of

  • The book was an enjoyable read
  • It was not too long or too difficult to be off-putting for very busy readers
  • It produced a good discussion in the group

To make our annual choices in our group we devote our December meeting to the task, each person bringing several selections. We have a free vote and then ensure we have on our list of eleven books, one from each individual and a variety of genres including poetry, theatre, memoir or biography and other non-fiction.

Seven recommendations from my Book Group

Milkman by Anna Burns (2018) 

Not everyone found this an easy read, but we all appreciated its innovation and compelling subject matter. Not everyone finished it.

I reviewed it on this blog, and you can find the review here.

Plainsong  by Kent Haruf (1999)

Some of the members of the group had not previously encountered Kent Haruf but agreed that this was a very good read, and prompted a good discussion about his focus on the ordinary folk of Holt, Colorado. 

I had reviewed this book as well. You can find it here.

Reservoir 13  by Jon McGregor (2017)

I missed the session at which this novel was discussed, but the enthusiasm of the group has encouraged me to plan to read it soon. It was swiftly recommended for this post.

My Life on the Road  by Gloria Steinem (2015)

This memoir prompted much talk about our different involvements in feminism in the past and today, and in Gloria Steinem’s approach to activism. Its length did not daunt us.

This is another book I reviewed on my blog and here is the link.

Go, Went, Gone  by Jenny Erpenbeck (2017)

The group recommended this book because they were interested in how it takes a long view of migration and a close look at refugees in Berlin. It was originally written in German and translated by Susan Bernofsky. 

I had read it and recommended it as part of a series on my blog about refugees. Here is the link.

All My Puny Sorrows  by Miriam Toews (2014)

The group recently discussed suicide, desperation, families and Mennonite communities after reading this book. Again, the topic prevents it being an easy read, but it was considered a very worthwhile choice.

Home Fire  by Kamila Shamsie (2017)

This novel had won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017 and the group enjoyed reading and discussing it. It has been a reference point since as it deals with people seeking to return from terrorist activities abroad, and the effects of radicalisation on families.

Yet another book I reviewed and here is the link.

You can find therecommendations of the art group here.

The Book Group and this blog

You can see that I have reviewed most of the group’s recommendations on Bookword. There’s a reason for that. The choices are good ones and I like to pass on reading recommendations. 

A footnote: You might be wondering what happens to the suggestions not included in the final eleven choices each year. To ensure that none of them are lost we add them to the schedule of books and group members can follow them up if they want to.

Over to you – what recommendations would you make to book groups?

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Should You Ask Me by Marianne Kavanagh

Older women are frequently portrayed as either dotty or having great insight and wisdom, at least in more popular fiction. In this novel Mary Holmes is presented at the outset as one of the dotty kind, but she gradually appears as an elderly woman who is full of insight and wisdom. And she has a story to tell.

Should You Ask Me  is the 39thin the series on Bookword blog about older women in fiction. This novel was recommended to me by someone on my recent French trip, about which you can read here. You can find a list of all the previous posts in the older women in fiction series with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series

Should You Ask Me  by Marianne Kavanagh

It is June 1944 in Wareham, a small town in Dorset. Like much of the south west of England the area is full of American troops, part of the build-up to D Day. Mary Holmes, an old woman of 86 presents herself at the police station. She has information about the identity of two bodies that have been discovered in the local quarries. And then she claims that she killed them.

William, the constable detailed to question her and take her statement, is very severely wounded and suffering from PSTD. He has his own story, concerning his love for Stella, a woman evacuee with a young baby. As Miss Holmes tells her story, William relives his past in a series of painful flashbacks.

Over the course of several days William and Annie spend hours together as he tries to prise her story out of her. He goes from doubting her fanciful and long-winded narrative to believing her detailed story concerning a shipwreck, two young men, the young Mary and an elaborate plot to avoid sharing the spoils of the shipwreck with the village. And two murders.

Eventually Mary gets William to relate his own story of lost love and military training that went horribly wrong, and to suggest that he needs treatment. It is partly a novel about guilt and confession.

Mary Holmes

We first meet Mary as she presents herself to William who is not from Wareham and does not know anything of her.

Underneath the black hat, which had a small silky bow to one side, her hair was a silvery grey. The skin of her face was so criss-crossed with tiny lines it looked like soft paper that had been crumpled and re-crumpled many times. She was wearing a black coat, with a pink scarf tucked in at the neck and cream woollen gloves, buttoned at the wrist. […] Her accent was old Dorset, a hum of long vowels. (5)

The story she has to tell about the two bodies happened 60 years before, and she has mulled over it a great deal. She will not hurry the retelling, which is frustrating for the constable and his kindly sergeant. She attends the police station every day for an hour or two to share a cup of tea with William and to relate a little more of her detailed story.

The tale she has to tell is full of violence and betrayal and guilt. 

As she shares her story she notices William’s pain, physical and mental and the care afforded him by Sergeant Mills. Eventually William tells her his own story of love, betrayal and his own close encounter with death. He too lives with guilt and is unable to forgive himself for the explosion that killed a fellow soldier, ruined his leg and probably his future.

Old woman as novelist’s device

This novel is about the slow telling of a double murder-mystery. In many ways Mary Holmes is the device that allows Marianne Kavanagh to tell the story slowly. And to take the reader back to the village as it was before the First World War, back into the late 19thcentury.

But this is not to dismiss this character as a thin one. Her creator is careful to tell us that she had a busy and successful life after the murders, running the forge and then the local garage, including servicing the cars of Lawrence of Arabia. 

I have criticised other novels about older women for assuming the only thing of importance that happened in their lives concerned romantic events in their youth. Their older selves have been fashioned and determined by the events of this time. But Mary Holmes is a more rounded character than that.

And Marianne Kavanagh has written a good story.

Should You Ask Meby Marianne Kavanagh, published in 2017 by Hodder and Stoughton.  272pp

Recent posts in this series:

The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour

Etta and Otto and Russell and James  by Emma Hooper

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe 

Three Things about Elsie  by Joanna Cannon

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