January Book Group

A Review of The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Book cover of The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles … how the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.

Last month’s Book Group choice was The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, a re-telling of Homer’s Iliad. Having only a scant knowledge of Homer, Ancient Greece and Greek mythology, I was grateful for the potted version of the story cited in the front matter and quoted from The Human Stain by Philip Roth. Achilles and Agamemnon are at loggerheads: ‘It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarrelling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war.’ Briseis is that girl and in The Silence of the Girls, Barker gives her a voice.

The story opens with a Greek invasion. Women and girls have been incarcerated for their own protection. Briseis describes the heat and fetid atmosphere of the rooms, her own attempts to help the other women, and then she describes what she sees from the roof of the citadel as the invasion unfolds.

I saw the flash of the upraised spear, I saw my brother lying on the ground wriggling like a stuck pig. And at that moment Achilles, as if he had all the time in the world, turned his head and glanced up at the tower […] Then, with a kind of fastidious precision – I wish I could forget it, but I can’t – he put his foot on my brother’s neck and pulled the spear out. Blood spurted from the wound, my brother struggled for a full minute to go on breathing, and then lay still.

After such a dramatic opening, I anticipated being drawn into the story, but although the writing is engaging and often vivid, I found it difficult to connect with Briseis. For me, her voice was too restrained. For example, when Achilles cannot be comforted after the death of his best friend, Patroclus, she considers her position in a cool, measured way:

Returning to the women’s huts, as early as this, would let everybody know I’d fallen from favour […] Nobody would be nasty, but everyone would take note […] I told myself it wasn’t too bad. He hadn’t hit me, hadn’t lashed out in frustration – in fact, he hadn’t done any of the things he might well have done.

Briseis cares nothing for Achilles but fears that falling from his favour will propel her into the lowest form of slavery. She frequently references the fate of female slaves but there’s a detachment about her that keeps the reader at arms’ length. The opening lines of the book suggest that Briseis is spirited and disdainful, but sadly, we don’t see those qualities in her as the story progresses.

I experienced other frustrations with this book. I struggled to picture the camp and other settings because they are never fully described. Perhaps the author assumed that her readers would know already, or maybe she was deliberately using a tight frame to underline how restricted women’s lives and viewpoints were. Certainly, Briseis knows little of what goes on in Achilles’ head. This might explain why there is an unexpected narrative switch which has Achilles taking up the story.

Whether Achilles should have been given a voice in what Emily Wilson has called “a feminist Iliad” (The Guardian, 22nd August, 2018) is a question beyond the scope of this review, but for this reader, after Briseis’ somewhat unemotional narrative, I found Achilles’ thoughts refreshingly fiery, especially those concerning his friend’s death. Barker convincingly evokes a depth of feeling which borders on the sexual…

… all the time thinking about Patroclus. Not thinking, craving. The shape of his head, that little dent just below the bridge of his nose, the lopsided grin, broad shoulders, narrow waist, the biscuit-brown smell of his skin. The way they were together.

To conclude, in spite of my frustrations I did enjoy reading this book. It was educationally satisfying and might prompt me to read The Iliad in future. In the meantime, I just can’t help thinking that with a title like The Silence of the Girls, the author should have given Briseis a much louder, more stroppy voice.

Next Month: The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn

November Book Group

Dirt Road by James Kelman

Dirt Road by James Kelman (Canongate, Edinburgh, 2016)

From the outset I am declaring my immense admiration for Kelman’s novel Dirt Road. I was so excited about it that my book group insisted that we make it our November book group read.

Dirt Road is a poignant and evocative coming of age story set in Scotland and the American deep south. Sixteen-year-old Murdo has recently lost his mother to cancer. His older sister, Eilidh had also died from the disease a few years before. Numb with grief, Murdo’s dad is trying to cope but struggles to articulate his feelings, so that father and son exist in a no-man’s-land of half-finished sentences and mutual misunderstanding.

Invited to visit relatives in America, Murdo and his dad embark on a journey which ultimately forces them to confront their shared grief and redraw the boundaries of their own changing relationship.

Whilst Murdo’s story is told primarily in third person restricted, Kelman blends second person and first-person strands through the narrative creating a convincing teenage voice for Murdo:

Even before a car he wanted a boat. With a boat ye could sail anywhere. Depending on the engine, or maybe the sails. Guys he knew had boats; their dads anyway, or uncles. It would have been great. His father didn’t bother. When ye take one back and forwards to yer work every morning, ye don’t want to be doing it in your spare time. As if travelling on a ferry was the same as sailing a boat. It was the kind of daft thing Dad said, because he couldn’t be bothered talking seriously about stuff.

For me, this short paragraph showcases everything that is admirable about Kelman’s writing. Using “ye” anchors Murdo’s interior voice to his native Scotland, whilst the Americanism (“Guys”) underlines his youthfulness. The way Kelman shows the progression of Murdo’s thoughts by repeating “or” (“Depending on the engine, or maybe the sails” and “their dads anyway, or uncles”) pulls the reader into Murdo’s head as his thoughts unfold, creating a freshness and immediacy to the writing. The way Murdo dismisses his dad’s views as “daft” coupled with his damning statement, “because he (Dad) couldn’t be bothered talking seriously about stuff” betrays Murdo’s frustration with his father, his desperation to talk about the loss of his mother and sister.

The Book Group admired Kelman’s skill in portraying the fluctuating emotions and preoccupations of the teenage Murdo – the way the author seeds Murdo’s love of music, for example, is trickled slowly through the narrative until we finally discover that he plays the accordion. Whilst the narrative is driven by Murdo, the book group also admired how effectively the author steers the reader to an understanding that Murdo is not necessarily the most reliable narrator. Through the chinks in Murdo’s narrative, we begin to get a picture of Dad. In a brilliant early scene, Murdo, who is silently berating his dad for fussing about their tickets, luggage and travel arrangements, discovers to his dismay that he has forgotten his phone. The pacing of the scene – Murdo checking his pockets and rucksack – and his father’s reaction to his son’s fruitless searching is darkly comic. Given that Murdo had promised to take his phone because his father hadn’t wanted to take his own, the reader begins to see a different side to Murdo’s personality. He is a young man who is prone to becoming distracted. This episode neatly paves the way for what happens later in the book.

Dirt Road is more than a coming of age story. With its additional themes of love and loss, its delicate examination of a strained family dynamic, not only between Murdo and his father but also between Murdo’s father and his American family, there are complex undercurrents running through this novel which reverberate like a fading musical note long after the final page is read.

Highly recommended.

Next time: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.

Book shelf, books with pages showing.

October Book Group

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers


‘The day I arrived to the West, I suddenly realised I am a Chinese.’

AT THE BEHEST of her parents, twenty-three-year-old Zhuang (Z) has come to London to learn English. Her parents run a shoe manufacturing business and need a fluent English speaker in the family to advance their commercial interests. Z navigates her way through her first weeks in London with only her English classes and her Chinese-English dictionary to guide her. She is constantly challenged by her new environment, but she is not homesick ‒ the only thing she misses about her Chinese hometown is the food. Loneliness is a problem, however, so when she meets a man with a kind smile in the cinema one evening, she latches onto him and they quickly become lovers. But love isn’t easy when so much is lost in translation.

Book cover of A Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

A Concise-English Dictionary for Lovers is Guo’s first novel written in English and was shortlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction in 2007.

The novel is written like a journal. Each month is broken into segments titled by the word that Z is trying to learn. When read in sequence these words become a synopsis of her physical and emotional journey in the West: “alien”, “hostel”, “guest”, “misunderstanding”, “privacy”, “intimate”, “frustration” and so on.

We kick off our Book Group evening with a discussion about Guo’s writing style. I read out a section of Carole Cadwalladr’s 2007 review in The Guardian:

I not Chinese. I British. I prefer read book with sentences not made look like broke. I prefer writer who not pretend not speak English when actually I think she speak English very goodly.

If you think this is annoying in a review, you might want to think carefully about picking up A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers.

There is an immediate outcry. Everyone feels that Guo’s writing style makes Z’s story feel authentic and that Z’s broken English is pivotal to what the author wants to say about culture and self-expression.

Every night, when I write diary, I feeling troubled. Am I writing in Chinese or in English? I trying to express me, but confusing – I see other little me try expressing me in other language.

Z’s struggle to articulate her thoughts and emotions in English constitutes a challenge for the reader too. Can we take Z at her word, literally, or must we permeate a layer of cultural gauze to access her true interiority? Later in the novel, when Z’s English has improved, the author goes on to highlight the gap between linguistic fluency and genuine communication. In the segment titled “Frustration” Z reflects on a conversation she has with her lover:

‘[…] It is very difficult for you and I to find the right way to communicate.’

You listen, then you say: ‘You really are starting to speak English properly.

Z’s relationship with the lover whose name she can’t remember (‘You tell me your name, but how I remember English name? Western name are un-rememberable, like all Western look the same.’) is passionate, but fraught with misunderstanding. He is her first lover and she cannot see why they can’t be together forever. Twenty years her senior and bisexual, he knows why they can’t be. He tries to launch her into the wider world by persuading her to visit Europe, which she does, albeit reluctantly, but when she comes back, she is forced to confront the shift taking place in her own psyche.

I feel I am detached. We are not one body anymore. This is the first time I feel this. There is a big obsessed ‘self’ separating itself from my body and looking at your body […] We Chinese are not encouraged to use the word ‘self’ so often.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers gets a thumbs up from the Book Group. Guo’s writing is engaging, humorous and poignant and members agree that the novel provides an entertaining and thought-provoking slant on life in the West as well as a valuable insight into Chinese culture.

Next month, the Book Group will be talking about Dirt Road by James Kelman.