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It’s been frequently observed how retellings of Greek myths have dominated literary fiction lately - from Madeline Miller’s “Circe” to Colm Toibin’s “House of Names” to modern retakes like “Home Fire” and “Everything Under”. You’d think with this prolific focus on the same characters and situations it’d come to feel repetitive, but I’m finding the more retellings I read the more engaged I am. It was particularly interesting coming to “The Silence of the Girls” having read “The Song of Achilles” and “House of Names” since they take different perspectives on the same cast. Pat Barker’s narrator is Briseis, a queen of Lyrnessus who is captured when Achilles attacks her city and kills her family. She becomes a trophy lover and a point of contention between Achilles and Agamemnon amidst their squabbling in the Trojan War. This status allows her unique access to some of the most intimate moments leading to the downfall of Troy, but she incisively recounts how painfully dehumanizing these men treat her and how her “privileged” status is in reality no more than that of a slave. It’s a refreshing reassessment of the positions of many characters associated with these tales of war who’ve traditionally been treated as peripheral and the novel’s vividly engaging storytelling kept me gripped.

Briseis is viewed as a possession and exclusively for Achilles’ sexual use. At some points I became frustrated that the focus is placed so much on Achilles rather than taking more time to explore the lives of Briseis and the enslaved women she lives with (such as when they work in the infirmary producing herbal mixtures to treat the wounded soldiers.) But it makes sense that her entire world is consumed with Achilles since she’s completely controlled by him and the other Greeks. Their coupling gives her such an interesting perspective on his private life – especially his issues concerning his mother and male lover. Achilles is presented as such a dynamic and fascinating figure (as well as being a thug.) There are humorous observations such as “no girl ever dressed more carefully for her wedding day than Achilles for the battlefield” as well as more subtle takes on his uniquely intimate relationship with Patroclus: “what I saw on the beach that night went beyond sex, and perhaps even beyond love.” So it feels natural at one point when the narrative is basically handed over to Achilles and Patroclus, but thankfully the focus comes back around to Briseis.

‘Thetis Bringing the Armor to Achilles’ by Benjamin West, 1804

‘Thetis Bringing the Armor to Achilles’ by Benjamin West, 1804

It feels like there is modern relevance in the way Pat Barker writes about several characters and situations. The bloated sense of entitlement and tyrannical egotism of Agamemnon can be seen in any number of bolshy political leaders we have today. The figure of Helen is publicly despised “for the part she’d played in starting this ruinous war” yet all the men want to bed her and the women seek to imitate how she dresses and looks. It feels like there have been modern equivalents in women entangled in sex scandals with political leaders/celebrities who are simultaneously envied and reviled. But the strongest message of the novel is in its insistence on giving voice to the stories of women who’ve traditionally been dismissed or seen as less interesting than the men who subjugated them.  

Briseis is magnanimous in recognizing the hardship and suffering of men, many of whom are young and forced to go to war. But she’s absolutely clear in the imbalance that existed between men and women: “They were men, and free. I was a woman, and a slave. And that’s a chasm no amount of sentimental chit-chat about shared imprisonment should be allowed to obscure.” As the novel goes on and the legend of the male figures around her grows, she seems to be cognizant of the diminutive place she’ll take in the songs and stories about them that will live through time. Her frustration about the unbalanced value given to men’s suffering over her own is palpable: “I’d been trying hard to escape not just from the camp, but from Achilles’ story; and I’d failed. Because, make no mistake, this was his story – his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter.” This novel wonderfully wrestles back control of that narrative to give visibility to the emotions and perspectives of the many women sidelined in traditional recitations of The Odyssey.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPat Barker
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Since I was a big fan of Madeline Miller’s “Song of Achilles” I’ve been so eager to read her latest novel that reimagines the life of another Greek mythological figure. It did not disappoint. Circe’s most famous role in the myths (and my only prior knowledge of her) was as a magical goddess/sorceress who hosts Odysseus amidst The Odyssey and transforms some of his sailors into swine. Miller tells Circe’s story from her origins as the nymph daughter of the Titan sun god Helios and the Oceanid nymph Perse, a vain and negligent mother. She has a lonely early life as her appearance and voice are scorned by the immortals surrounding her. Her natural propensity for kindness and compassion is tempered by the darker cruelties and vanity of the gods as well as the shallowness and relentless ambition of humans. After being banished and experiencing so much heartache it’s understandable that Circe becomes hotly bitter, intensely lonely and decides to foster her own innate power to fight for what she wants and what she feels is right. In a sense, Miller does for Circe what Gregory Maguire did to the Wicked Witch of the West. Their stories take a figure who is scorned and branded a witch in popular culture and gives them back their humanity. “Circe” is also a finely crafted story that’s truly romantic and thrilling in its many adventures.

One important thing I’d stress is that if you aren’t already familiar with the many Greek myths Miller touches on throughout the novel, don’t look them up before you finish it. Otherwise, it will spoil the plot. At a few points I became curious about some details of a mythological figure I wasn’t aware of so I looked on Wikipedia to find out more and inadvertently spoiled the story for myself. Of course, plot isn’t the most important aspect of a novel and I know its somewhat silly to claim a tale that’s thousands of years old can be spoiled but take this caution if you want to remain in suspense about how a particular storyline will play out. It did feel at some points that there wasn’t a need for Miller to reference quite so many mythological stories. It was as if she tried to cram them all in or that Circe was bragging about having a connection to famous figures. But this is my only light criticism of this novel and the unique interpretations and relationships formed between all these stories is always compelling.

It’s so interesting how Miller writes about the way the gods and adventurous humans are very cognizant that their actions will lead to stories being told about them. It’s analogous to the way some people today only do certain things in order to post a picture or vlog about it on social media. Although the deities are immortal and can recall these stories, the humans need bards to capture their tales and relate them in a way that many future generations on will still be impressed by their accomplishments and dramatic clashes. Miller highlights how these bards and poets often have a misogynistic point of view: “Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.” It’s so refreshing to see a range of women from these myths given a fuller complexity in both their heroism and villainy. Figures like her relentlessly cruel sister Pasiphae or the hot-tempered Madea are vividly realised. One thing I found particularly striking is the relationship that develops between Circe and Penelope as their encounter would typically be portrayed as one of rivalry, but instead what we get is a hard-won and sympathetic bond between them.

1786 Painting of Circe enticing Ulysses by Angelica Kauffmann

1786 Painting of Circe enticing Ulysses by Angelica Kauffmann

Something that makes Circe stand out as remarkable for her time is that she’s incredibly passionate and desires to have love in her life, but not if she’s just going to be seen as a commodity. She ominously notes “Brides, nymphs were called, but that is not really how the world saw us. We were an endless feast laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away.” Circe refuses to be used and she's prepared to fight. When men sexually attack her she uses her magic to defend herself. As a consequence she’s labelled as difficult and a witch. But Miller also shows a really heartrending psychological complexity to Circe’s reaction to being raped. For sailors she meets after she states “I might take him to my bed. It was not desire, not even its barest scrapings. It was a sort of rage, a knife I used upon myself. I did it to prove my skin was still my own. And did I like the answer I found?”

However, as Miller demonstrated in her previous novel, she can also beautifully capture the heights of romance. The text is infused with such a striking intensity of feeling when Circe finds love and the vulnerability this raises for a lonely individual: “in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth.” She is so good at capturing all the great adventure and drama of these classic tales but infusing them with emotions which are immediate and real. Unsurprisingly, when references are made to Achilles it feels like the author treats him with particular affection. But Circe is such a compelling figure in her own right that I wanted to spend even more time reading about the centuries she spends living in the paradise and prison that is her island of Aiaia.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMadeline Miller
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Surely the Greek myth of warrior-king Agamemnon and his downfall must be the story of the most dysfunctional family in history. In his most recent novel “House of Names” Tóibín reenacts this dramatic tragedy, but doesn’t focus on the perspective of the great conqueror of Troy who horrifically sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the gods in order to ensure his victory. Instead he flips between the accounts of Agamemnon’s scheming wife Clytemnestra, imperious daughter Electra and young son Orestes. Moving between their points of view he shows how their downfall is fuelled by their various ambitions and craven need for revenge. If you’re not familiar with the details of this myth I’d advise you not to search for their stories online prior to reading this novel (as I unfortunately did) or you’ll ruin the blood-soaked plot. However, the power of Tóibín’s invention isn’t in plotting out this ancient story (whose details he seems to mostly stay faithful to) but in how he vividly imagines the points of view of these more marginalized figures of the myth and letting their voices color the well-worn tale. 

It’s somewhat funny looking back to my last review of a Tóibín novel when I read “Nora Webster” a few years ago. In the first line I comment that “his stories seldom involve high drama.” It’s like the author took that challenge and recreated a story with nothing but wickedly sensational drama! Tóibín’s great talent has traditionally been in writing domestic dramas where nothing much happens but we feel the angst of the characters’ life decisions so intensely that their stories become utterly profound. However, in recent years, he’s changed his tactic by harkening back to classic tales to expand our understanding of these old stories and imbue them with a modern sensibility. This is what he did by taking on the daring and weighty task of writing “The Testament of Mary.” Strangely, this brief novel where the mother of Jesus gets to have her say had little impact on me - although I absolutely loved the staged monologue starring Fiona Shaw holding a live vulture! However, I was enthralled reading “House of Names” for both it’s fiery action and sensitive take on a family ripped apart amidst their power struggle.

Agamemnon mostly comes across as a blandly driven man who “was an image of pure will.” The real conflict exists with his wife and children who are understandably overwrought by emotions because of the heinous actions of their family members. It’s interesting how the stories of Clytemnestra and Electra turn to meditations on faith. They separately struggle with their belief in the gods and how the gods’ actions play upon human emotions. Clytemnestra considers how “they distracted us with mock conflicts, with the shout of life, they distracted us also with images of harmony, beauty, love… And when it ended, they shrugged. They no longer cared.” Whereas Electra thinks “Perhaps the gods keep the memory of death locked up in their store, jealously guarded. Instead, the gods release feelings that were once pure or sweet. Feelings that mattered once. They allow love to matter since love can do no harm to the dead.” Tóibín intensely portrays their struggle between being servants to the will of the gods and exerting their own willpower in changing the course of fate. The narrative also charts what seems to be a societal shift from a polytheistic civilization to one which is more atheistic – as well as a change from feudalism to one which isn’t so domineering towards serfs and slaves.

Pierre Narcisse Guerin's 1822 painting 'Clytemnestra and Agamemnon'

Pierre Narcisse Guerin's 1822 painting 'Clytemnestra and Agamemnon'

Probably the most sympathetic character in this drama is young Orestes who finds himself a pawn in his family’s scheming until he’s a bit older and takes things into his own hands. Strangely, his account is the only one which isn’t actually narrated in the first person. Like Madeline Miller’s beautiful novel “The Song of Achilles”, the character of Orestes allows Tóibín to highlight this character’s homosexuality (which is suggested in some versions of this myth, but which Tóibín makes overt). There’s no question that Orestes falls in love with a man in this story, but he’s unable to explore the romantic implications of this due to societal constraints. While it’s considered quite natural in this society for leaders to have late-night rendezvous with guards, these affairs are never carried out in domestic partnerships. Tóibín powerfully depicts the tragedy and isolation which results from this.

The most poignant aspect of “House of Names” is tied to its title. Amidst all the devastation and bloodshed in this society, people’s existence doesn’t end neatly with their deaths. Instead they literally carry on in ghost-like forms to haunt the spaces where the intense dramas of their lives occurred. The way in which Tóibín portrays this is unsettling and strange and much more subtle than the raucous and magnificently-rendered graveyard found in Saunders’ recent “Lincoln in the Bardo.” But while Tóibín’s characters are still alive they frequently emphasize and assert their names as if everything about their being is tied up in these monikers. If their names are lost or forgotten then they will be lost to history and this makes the characters question if their existence has any significance at all. Through this Tóibín meaningfully probes if it’s better to be remembered for your actions (whether heroic or hateful) or if living without notoriety and letting your name be forgotten is preferable. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesColm Toibin
6 CommentsPost a comment