The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

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*Marking International Women’s Day* – This is a re-telling of part of the Iliad  from (mostly) the viewpoint of Briseis, the princess given to Achilles as a prize of war and then claimed by King Agamemnon, leading Achilles to refuse to fight.  The treatment of all the Trojan women in the Iliad is horrific – handed out to the men as trophies, enslaved, raped, even sacrificed –  and it’s just accepted that this is the lot of women in wartime. In some cases, even today, that hasn’t changed – look at the treatment of Yazidi women by IS.

This isn’t a particularly well-written book, and some of it’s really rather silly, such as all the female slaves singing “Why was he born so beautiful?”.  But it tells an important story.  We don’t really know whether or not anything in the Iliad is based on truth, but it and the Odyssey play an important part in all Western cultures, and are indeed often described as the starting point of Western culture.  I’ve climbed up a very steep hill to Mycenae in the heat, and walked round the ruins of both Troy and Sparta, partly out of historical interest but also partly because of the influence of Homer’s writings., How horrific is it that these stories, which have had such an impact and lasted for so many centuries, depict the role of women as being this?

They’re barely even given a voice.  And that’s what Pat Barker’s tried to redress.

The story goes that Briseis, the young wife of Mynes, son of the King of Lyrnessus, is given as a prize to Achilles when the Greeks take Lyrnessus.  Another young woman, Chryseis (Cressida) is given to Agamemnon.  Apollo sends plague to the Greek camp and refuses to stop it unless Chryseis is returned to her family.  Agamemnon is forced to give in, but takes Briseis as a replacement.  Achilles is furious at the affront to his honour, and refuses to fight.  He’s their star man, and, without him, things go badly.  Patroclus, his best friend, probably also his lover, dresses in his armour and takes his place, but is killed by Hector.  Agamemnon sends Briseis back, but Achilles is ready to fight anyway, to avenge his friend’s death.  He kills Hector, but is then killed himself.  Troy falls, and the women are raped and enslaved, apart from the young princess Polyxena, of whom the Greeks make a human sacrifice.

At one point in the Iliad, Achilles claims to love Briseis.  That isn’t really shown in this book, and it doesn’t fit with what happens elsewhere, when both Achilles and, in a rare moment when Homer allows her to speak, Briseis make it clear that he sees her as a possession, a prize of war.  The book talks a lot about the dehumanising of the women – not only are they being forced to act as sex slaves, and to the men who killed their husbands, brothers, fathers, sons, other relatives and friends, but they’re not even seen as human beings any more, except by each other.

Patroclus shows Briseis some kindness.  Agamemnon is violent.  And there’s some weird fetish thing going on with Achilles, who likes her to smell of the sea because it reminds him of his sea-goddess mother – I’m not sure where Pat Barker got that from!   Interesting points are made, though, about Achilles having “issues” because his mother abandoned him.  Very 21st century, but fair points.

Some of the women, those who were from lower social ranks but are blessed with good looks, in some ways benefit from what’s happened, and some grow fond of their captors: it’s a way of coping.  Briseis, as the slave of one of the top men, is at least in a better position than some of the other women, who are more or less thrown to the men to do with as they will.  Pat Barker uses the term “rape camp”, associated with the Balkan wars of the 1990s.  It’s not inaccurate – but, as she says, it’s not what people associate with the Trojan War, the war of gods and heroes.

We also see quite a lot of the camp, and we see how Briseis is able to regain some dignity and sense of self by treating the sick and wounded.  Books about heroes never tell you much about hospitals.

The focus is very much on the women, but the men obviously play a big part in the story.  Apart from Patroclus, the one man who comes out of things well is elderly King Priam, who comes to the Greek camp alone and unarmed, to beg for the return of his son Hector’s body.  But, however courageous and dignified he is, he can’t do anything to help Briseis.  He recognises her, Pat Barker having fleshed out her back story to show her having a sister married to one of Priam’s sons, and having been friendly with Helen, but says that he can’t take her back to Troy with him, because the rules of war are that she belongs to Achilles.

The book ends with Briseis, expecting a baby by Achilles, being married off to Alcimus, a nice enough man, who’ll look after her. It’s a better fate than she might have met, but it’s not her choice – but, as she says, at least she’s no longer a part of someone else’s story.

It’s not a particularly well-written book, as I’ve said, but it’s a story that needs telling.  Very few schools still provide a “classical education”, but these stories are still crucial to our culture, and the names of Achilles, Hector, Helen and Cassandra are still known to most people.  Homer rarely allows the women to speak.  The way they’re treated is horrific.  Pat Barker’s tried to redress that, a little.  Don’t be expecting writing of the quality of Homer’s, but this is still worth a read.

Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert

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  (Facebook group reading challenge.)  OK, we’ve got a black, Jewish, bisexual heroine (Little/Suzette), her white, Jewish, straight, bipolar stepbrother (Lion, short for Lionel), her half-black, half-Korean, hearing-impaired male admirer (Emil), her lesbian best friend (DeeDee), the pansexual Latina girl whom both Little and Lion fancy and who’s been disowned by her religious mother for having an abortion (Rafaela), and the girl with whom Suzette had a secret relationship at a posh (lacrosse-playing) boarding school in Massachusetts (Iris).  And throw in a bit of Beverly Hills 90210: we’re in an upmarket part of Los Angeles, where schoolkids have swimming pools at their homes and drive around in their own cars.

Incidentally, it’d been years since I’d read a modern American teenage book: I read all the Judy Blumes and Paula Danzigers many moons ago, but it *was* many moons ago!

My initial reaction was that the author’s main aim was, in a very well-intentioned way, to make the cast as diverse as possible, and that the plot was going to be secondary to that; but, to be fair, it wasn’t, and the main characters were well-drawn.  However, it kept rather confusingly jumping about between the past and the present, and I could have done without it using so many swear words in the narrative (which stops seeming cool when you’re about 12).  The Suzette storyline generally, although far from entirely, worked quite well, though.  A lot of it was about the anxieties that teenagers experience about how others will react to them being “different” to the majority – whether that’s ethnicity, religion, sexuality, disability, having a mental health condition, or anything else, and especially when it’s more than one of those things.  And just *being* a teenager is complicated.

The Lionel storyline was more problematic.  It was great to see an author tackling the issue of mental health conditions in young people, and also saying straight out that the side effects of the tablets can end up making you feel worse than you did to start with.  However, I don’t think it was handled too well.  First of all, Suzette was sent away to boarding school so she wouldn’t have to cope with Lionel’s illness, and then he came off his tablets and told her but not their parents, so she was stressed out and feeling guilty and didn’t know what to do.  So the way it came across was that Lionel’s medical condition was causing huge problems for Suzette.  This book’s aimed at secondary school kids.  It’s not giving a very helpful message to young readers who may have mental health condition themselves.

I very much appreciated the fact that the author didn’t take the Everyone’s A Racist/Homophobe culture war approach that you come across so often these days, and which is neither true nor helpful, and also the way that she steered well away from tropes.  A lot of books show stepfamilies as having problems, but everyone in this family got on brilliantly.  And a lot of books show teenagers clashing with their parents, but these parents were lovely.  And there was never any concern that they’d react badly to Suzette being bisexual: she knew they’d be fine with it.  A posh Massachusetts boarding school might well have been shown as being full of girls whose families all belonged to country clubs which only admitted WASPs.  It wasn’t.  And it didn’t have a culture of homophobia either.  And some authors would have said that Suzette’s mother had been denied opportunities in life because she was black.  Not at all: she was a successful woman with a degree from Wellesley.

What we did get, and which was very well-written, was the uncertainties and anxieties of being part of a minority group.  In Suzette’s case, three minority groups.  Not everyone’s prejudiced against any minority group, but, sadly and indisputably, some people are, and it’s not always obvious who they are.  If a security guard was watching her in a shop, was that because it was his job to watch everyone, or is it because she was black?  If someone looked at the Star of David on her necklace, was it because they were anti-Semitic, because they thought it was weird that a black girl was wearing a Jewish symbol, or just because they thought it was a pretty necklace and they were admiring it?   And what about Lionel – how were people going to react to finding out that he was bipolar, having just been told that he was off school because he was “sick”?  Would they treat him differently?

What was she supposed to do when someone said something like “Black people aren’t supposed to be good at swimming”.  Pull them up on it or ignore it?  That was an interesting scene.  What do you do when someone says something like that about a minority group?  If you do pull them up on it, are they going to accept that it wasn’t an appropriate thing to say, or are they going to tell you that you’re over-reacting and they didn’t mean anything by it, or that it was a joke and you’ve got no sense of humour, or that you don’t understand English (or American, in this case) irony?

But the main issues were with Suzette herself.  There was a lot of talk about how in Los Angeles it was OK to be yourself, whoever you were, but Suzette hadn’t told people that she was bisexual … although that was because she wasn’t 100% sure herself.  At school, she hadn’t told anyone that she was Jewish, even though she was sure about that. (Lionel and his father were always Jewish: Suzette and her mother converted.)

And we learned that she and Iris had kept their relationship secret, but that a group of other girls had found them together, a homophobic minority of people had had a go at them and that Iris (for unknown reasons) gave them the impression that she’d taken advantage whilst Suzette was drunk, and that Suzette let everyone believe this, leaving all the other girls to think that Iris was some sort of sex predator.  That was problematic.  Suzette was the heroine, and presented sympathetically.  But the way she’d treated Iris was appalling, and neither the character nor the authorial voice seemed to think that she should be apologising for it, instead of thinking that it was all about her and spending her summer holidays trying to work out whether she preferred Emil, whom she’d been dating, or Rafaela.  Even her mum just said that she was sure Iris’d forgive her, rather than pointing out it wasn’t really very nice to let someone get a reputation for being a sex pest just because you didn’t want to tell people that you were bisexual.

The other thing about Suzette that didn’t work was her religion. That was the one “identity” that felt as if it was put in to tick a box – and that was a shame.  The specific issues faced by “Jews of colour” were covered in the local press here during the Black Lives Matter protests last year: several people spoke about problems they’d faced because people tend to have an image of a Jewish person as being white, and I don’t know why the author chose to create a black Jewish character but then write so unconvincingly about the religious side of her character.  We were told early on that she was very religious and that Judaism was very important to her, whereas Lionel wasn’t really bothered about it, but not once did we not once see her attending a service or marking a religious festival, or having any sort of issue with the fact that none of her three potential partners shared her religion.  I could have handled that, but we also saw her turning up at a picnic with prosciutto and cheese – on challah bread! – and then eating grilled shrimp!   What on earth?

As for Lionel, he said he’d start talking his tablets again, and the book concluded by saying that that meant that everything’d be OK.  And Suzette, even though she was really keen on Emil, decided to go back to the boarding school.  Well, I hope that she told everyone that they’d got it wrong about Iris!

I quite enjoyed reading an American teenage novel for the first time in 30-odd years.  I loved those Judy Blume books!

 

The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson

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It appears that the vocabulary of the Covid-19 pandemic has now permeated historical fiction.  The reader of this book is informed twice that Henry VII has put the royal palaces into “lockdown” because of outbreaks of disease.  No mention of courtiers having to practise social distancing or WFH, but, even so, a lot of the language in this just doesn’t quite sound right in a Tudor-era novel.  It’s not a brilliant book, but the author deserves credit for sticking to the known facts about events (unlike certain other authors, cough, Philippa Gregory), being nice about Lady Margaret Beaufort, being even-handed about Henry VII, and writing a book about the little-known figure of Joan Vaux, later Joan Guildford, governess to Henry VII’s daughters.  She was praised by Erasmus.  That’s impressive!

Erasmus doesn’t actually feature in this, though, because the book’s set before their meeting.  I assume that there’ll be a sequel, because Joan, although she was a protegee of Lady Margaret Beaufort and a friend and lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth of York, is best-known for accompanying Princess Mary to France for her ill-fated marriage to Louis XII and for testifying that the marriage of Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon had been consummated.  This book, however, is set between 1485 and 1501.  We get a lot about court life and the various plots involving Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck (everyone in my history A-level group was bizarrely obsessed with Perkin Warbeck 🙂 ), and it’s made clear that Perkin Warbeck is definitely not Richard of York and that the real princes definitely disappeared in Richard III’s time.  We also see Joan’s personal life: she was married off to a widower with six children, but the book suggests – I don’t think anyone really knows, because not much has been written about them – that she was initially reluctant but that the marriage was very happy.

Her husband’s various roles meant that she spent a lot of time at the Tower of London, and there’s a sub-plot about her loving the ravens and protecting them from a baddie who wants to shoot them all … I’m not quite sure what the point of that storyline was, but, hey, it was different!

It’s not the world’s greatest book, and it finds it necessary to explain the historical background as if the reader knows nothing about it, but there’s always something comforting about Tudor-era novels – although that’s probably just me, because they take me back to A-level days!   Joanna Hickson’s written better books than this, but it’s an easy read and it’s really not bad.

Eating Disorders Awareness Week

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  British Eating Disorders UK (BEAT)’s summary – “Binge eating disorder will affect one in fifty of us in our lifetime, it is the most common but least understood. It isn’t about being greedy or lacking in willpower, but a serious mental illness which many suffer with alone, often with the fear of how others might react the reason they don’t reach out for help”.  I’m not responsible for the poor syntax 😉 , nor am I responsible for the clashing colours, but the meaning’s clear enough.   They’ve also pointed out on their website that “binge eating disorder is linked to low self-esteem and lack of confidence, depression and anxiety” and that “some people gain weight because of emotional difficulties, and being overweight can also lead to emotional difficulties”.

This is Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2021, with the focus on Binge Eating Disorder.  Everyone’s having bad days during lockdown: if you’re someone who struggles with Binge Eating Disorder, you may well be finding that some of those bad days trigger eating binges.  If relatives or friends tell you that they’re having a bad day, you’ll probably try to comfort them by telling them that hopefully tomorrow will be better and they’ll be able to put it behind them.  That doesn’t work with Binge Eating Disorder – the scales don’t care that you were having a bad day, so an eating binge will probably lead to weight gain, and then you’ll feel even worse about yourself, and it makes it that much harder to move on to a good day.  Scales are very mean like that.  So you’re probably having some pretty rough patches.

This isn’t meant to sound like a whingefest, just an attempt to highlight a problem which is often hidden.  Thank you to BEAT for highlighting it.  And almost a year of the pandemic is exacerbating a lot of mental health issues, especially in parts of the country which have been subject to extra restrictions.   If any of these are affecting you, have a lot of virtual hugs from me xxx.  And, on a totally different note, Happy St David’s Day.

It’s a chicken and egg situation, and also a vicious circle.  Oh dear, using two clichés in one situation isn’t very good English either, is it?   If you’re someone who has issues with overeating, and if you’re genetically prone to being overweight, then you’ve probably been called names for as far back as you can remember.  Society doesn’t half vilify overweight people, and that’s from early childhood onwards.  That probably led to low self-esteem, and may well be linked to anxiety and depression.  If you’re someone who’s genetically more likely to develop anxiety and depression, then you’re probably also more likely to have issues with food and eating.  Round and round it goes.

Just personally speaking, my worst days with it were when I’d just left university and was applying for jobs.  I filled in application form after application form, went for interview after interview, and got rejection after rejection.  When that happens, however much people tell you that there are loads of applicants for each place and that the constant rejections don’t mean that you’re a failure, it doesn’t half feel like you’re a failure.  But all sorts of different things can be triggers, and obviously it’s different for every person.

As with any mental health condition, some days, and some weeks, months and years, will be bad, and others won’t.  But lockdown is making things pretty difficult for everyone.  We also keep being told that obesity is one of the major factors leading to hospitalisation if someone has contracted Covid-19.  That’s a medical fact and I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be spoken about, but it’s adding to the feelings of guilt and shame and inadequacy that surround eating issues.

Also, one of the main causes of eating disorders is a need for control.  That sounds strange, because, with eating binges you lose control, but then you feel terrible because you lost control.  Feeling trapped can be a major trigger, and we’re all trapped at the moment.  Roll on March 29th, April 12th, May 17th and June 21st, eh?!

If you’re struggling, please shout.  If you suspect that someone else is struggling, please be nice.  Please don’t make comments about how much someone else is eating, and please, please don’t tell them that they’re fat.  One in fifty people are affected by this – that’s a lot of people.

Thanks again to Beat Eating Disorders UK for highlighting this.  There’s a lot of it about.