Shopping cart is empty.

Birchbark Blog

The Silence of the Girls

Louise Erdrich - Wednesday, February 13, 2019
Since reading Pat Barker's powerful Regeneration trilogy, I've been an ardent admirer of her work. The Silence of the Girls, her latest novel, is extraordinary. Ostensibly a retelling of the Illiad from the point of view of Briseis, captured queen and war prize of Archilles, the book seems more an artifact unearthed from time than a historical novel. Barker's genius is to tell this story with such simple and direct poetry that it speaks truth. Says Briseis "Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… How the epithets pile up We never called him any of those things, we called him, 'the butcher.'"

Every sentence is anchored in the senses. The odors of women waiting in a hot tower to be murdered or enslaved by their captors. The pathetic sight of slave women too old to be sexually used, asleep in burrows with the camp dogs. The crackling sound of lethal infection beneath the skin of a wounded soldier. The taste of watered wine. The blunt disgust and horror of being forced to have sex with the man who has murdered your family. The salty rapture of bathing in the sea. Barker works with a lived poetry.

At times this book reads as a moving commentary on our current ethos.

As Briseis unflinchingly recounts the daily murders and the shifting uses enslaved women are put to in the Greek war camp, she uses the survival bonds of hurt and seething women as a sort of chorus of disdain. Men waste their power in idiotic quarrels over women, over honor, over nothing, while women desperately attempt to guard their children and live out their lives no matter how brutal. One of Barker's great themes is how violence erodes the personality. The stubborn pride of Achilles leads to the loss of his childhood love, Patroclus. Meditating on the madness of Achilles' grief Barker refers to Strange Meeting, by perhaps the greatest poet/soldier of World War One, Wilfred Owen. Over and over, Achilles enters an underworld of the war dead, Hades, searching, and 'then, as he probes them, one springs up and stares, with piteous recognition in fixed eyes . . . ' This is a line from Strange Meeting, in which a soldier meets the man he recently killed, as does Achilles. He is haunted by Lycaon, the son of Priam, who scrambled up a river bank toward Achilles, greeting him with the word, Friend. Achilles did not spare him, or think twice, and he is tortured by the enormity of his casual cruelty.

As powerful as this scene and so many scenes of male reckoning are, throughout this book, it is a book of women. Women who bear their children in agony and raise them with infinite care, only to see their sons slaughtered off-handedly on the intimate field of battle. Women who survive by exchanging warnings, gossip, information on how to handle men. Women who, let us not forget in the nascent democracy that was Greece, had no agency, no power, who were chattel, who were silenced. In Homer's gorgeous bombastic epics the men slaughter children and each other, they pout, they roar, they rage to the heavens, while the women take care of everything on earth.

Oh dear, I forgot about Valentine's Day! Oh well. It is a truly brave fellow who will gift this book to his lady love. And a woman among women who will get it for herself and pass it to a friend.


Canoe Family

Recent PostsRSS


Tags

plants Alice Munro graphix Brown Dog language revitalization ireland Green Team Keepers of the Trees Ice This Green World Native People Our Knowledge Is Not Primitive National Book Award Poetry The Blue Sky Roberto Bolano Unnatural Disasters Master Butchers Singing Club Aza Too Much Happiness Love Climate Change Collective Denial Remarkable Trees Interview Tar Sands Minnesota Kate DiCamillo Botany Education euphoria School Gardens favorite dog Rare Books photography knowledge 2666 The Wealth of Nature Keystone XL Emily Johnson incarnation Bill Moyers Journal twins city of books Easter Island Aubrey/Maturin Patrick O'Brian Women and Trees Peak Oil Kabul gardens The Royal Prussian Library coyote Magers and Quinn Population Tree Houses Wastepaper Nemesis Fireworks Zombies favorite tree thank you friends Pembina Gryphon Press cafe closing post holiday reads ependent Anton Treuer aquifer Anishinabe france Ha Jin The Farmer's Daughter The Birchbark House anniversary Stephen Salisbury Minneapolis joy thanks Kenwood Gardens Chitra Divakaruni Crushing Books E.L. Doctorow Peak Water Vic Glover cafe Chickadee The Resilient Gardener Dogs support neighborhood boarding school Too Loud A Solitude trees monkey in a dryer Gail Caldwell green north dakota health care reform Alan Weisman Michael Jackson solstice, Thomas King British Navy World on the Edge gratitude Bohumil Hrabal Dartmouth Jim Harrison pilgrims japan Catalyst Islam Hilary Mantel The Ojibwe Video Wendy Makoons Geniusz how good looking you are Light in August Bleak House Milkweed Press customers sweden 350.org The Transition Handbook More Remarkable Trees the most romantic city in the world Book Review devoted customers Gary Clement The Round House mississippi Ojibwemowin Mohamed's Ghosts Native Arts Small Bookstores as Commons Hillary Clinton leaves and snow show your love Up Late Again ptsd friends Philip Roth Keeping Heart on Pine Ridge State Troopers fresh water tree books Makoons Guthrie Theater favorite book Let's Take the Long Way Home buffalo Empire of the Summer Moon Nero birchbark house series Ojibwe President Obama Wolf Hall book and dinner club NACDI:All My Relations Greenland Canada William Trevor Anishinabemowin italy local economy S.C. Gwynne Louise The Game of Silence H2Oil bill mckibben peculiar touches of green and gold china Beth Dooley spring Czech Writer The Porcupine Year germany Victory Gardens post holiday Birchbark Books adventure Afghanistan Mankato Powwow

Archive