Monday, 25 April 2022

The Women of Troy, by Pat Barker

(This review first appeared on Writers Review at the end of February.)

One of the joys of Christmas is that, in my family, we’re very big on giving books for presents. One year this all went horribly wrong, when nearly every book one of us had loving selected had also been lovingly selected by someone else, so at least half of them had to be exchanged – but this year all was well, and this book was part of my haul. It follows on from Pat Barker’s first book about the Trojan War, The Silence of the Girls, which I had not read before reading this one, though I have now. 

It’s perfectly possible to read the second one without having read its predecessor – partly, I suppose, because the legend on which both books are based is very familiar: but also because Briseis, the narrator, naturally refers to the past as she takes up her story. I write books for children, and I think, if I was setting out to write one about the Trojan War and its aftermath, I would seek out a child character – who would need to have some agency: to be a hero in some measure – to make things better. But this retelling concerns war in all its horror and savagery: it’s a bleak tale with few shafts of light. There are certainly heroes, but they all have the capacity for horrifying violence and unthinking cruelty. And, incidentally, the only children in this narrative are girls – because when the Greeks finally conquered the Trojans by means of Odysseus’ wooden horse, they slaughtered the boys. They even, Briseis tells us, killed pregnant women in case the children in their wombs were boys. 

 Briseis had been a queen, captured when her city was laid waste by the Greeks almost as a sideshow to the main war against the Trojans. When we read retellings of the Greek legends, what we remember and enjoy are the exploits of the famous heroes. Pat Barker, through Briseis, lays bare the brutal treatment of the vanquished by the victors. The Trojan men are almost all slaughtered, while the women are raped and led into slavery. Briseis is relatively fortunate: as a high status captive, she is made available to be a trophy for one of the ‘heroes’. She is chosen by Achilles. In some books, this could have been the prelude to a romance, but there is no romance here. She is a commodity, no more. She only finally receives any consideration when she becomes pregnant with Achilles’ child, and is given in marriage to one of his friends: Achilles knows he is going to die, and knows also that his slave girl could easily be given after his death as a plaything for the ordinary soldiers. Because she bears his son, he doesn’t want that to happen – but only because of that, not because of any tender feelings towards Briseis herself.

The story takes place in the Greek camp on the shores of Troy. The Greeks want to go home, but the winds are against them, and they cannot leave. There is no beauty in this place: it’s windswept and desolate. “On the shoreline, there were stinking heaps of bladderwrack studded with dead creatures, thousands of them…The sea was murdering its children.” There is another dead creature on this beach. It is the body of Priam, the King of Troy and one of the few characters in this story who retains nobility – until, that is, he is dishonoured by his killer, Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, who drags Priam’s body behind his chariot every day round the walls of Troy, and refuses to allow it to be cremated. One of the Trojan women is determined to put a stop to this, and buries the body, to the fury of Pyrrhus. In a bewildered way he observes that there are only two Trojans in the camp, a priest called Calchas and one of Hector’s brothers, and that neither of these would have defied him in this way, so who can have defied him so flagrantly? 

He is quite oblivious to the women: they are slaves, and they are women – they simply don’t count. They are invisible to him. But Briseis renders herself visible to us, because she tells us her story, and those of the other women in the camp: Helen, Cassandra, Andromache – but also the women of lower status, who nevertheless have their own stories, their own individual tragedies. She is courageous and she is kind: I look forward to reading the next book, which I suspect will bring her happiness in some degree. 

 It’s a wonderful book but a bleak read, harsh in many ways. The language reflects this. Pat Barker doesn’t let the reader off the hook, doesn’t put a gloss on things. This is what war does, she tells us. This is how it is. 

 How it still is, as we are seeing. 

The Women of Troy is published by Hamish Hamilton

Sunday, 9 January 2022

The Inspector Gamache series, by Louise Penny


A couple of months ago, a friend put me onto a detective series by a writer I hadn't heard of, Louise Penny. They're set in Canada, she said, in Quebec. I think you'll like them.

Well, sixteen books later, I can confirm that she was absolutely right. (There is a seventeenth, but it's still expensive on Kindle, so I'm trying to exercise a little self-discipline and wait till the price comes down.) I thoroughly enjoyed these books. What's more, they did me good - they were therapeutic.

And why?

Well, I find autumn a difficult season. Nothing complicated about that: it's the dark nights, it's the sense that not only is winter coming, but it's going to be hanging around for months and months. As days shorten, so my mood sinks. For this time of year, I need reading which is both engrossing and comforting.

And although these are ostensibly murder mysteries, they are comforting. For the most part, the characters they feature are nice. They're quirky, kind, funny and witty. Take Inspector Gamache himself. He is not your usual star of detective series; he's not miserable, he doesn't have a fatal flaw - he has friends, for heaven's sake, and a happy marriage. He's big, strong, gentle, perceptive and kind - but if you need someone strong and decisive when push comes to shove, he's the one I'd choose over Rebus, Simon Serailler, Albert Campion - even Dr Siri. (Not sure who I'd pick between him and Elly Griffiths' Nelson, though - that would be a close call.)

But he's not the only star of this series. That would be the village of Three Pines, which has a magical quality about it - a touch of the Narnias. For a start, it's not to be found on any map, and it's not discoverable by GPS. It's small, it nestles among fairy-tale forests, and in the winter it snows and is beautiful. It's inhabited by a bunch of eccentric friends. They're not all faultless, not by any means: some of them do bad things. But somehow they're all people you'd love to have as your friends - even Ruth, the crazy old poet who insults everybody and is only nice to her pet duck. Gamache comes across the village on an early case, and eventually ends up living there. Along the way, apart from the murders he has to solve, he encounters corruption in the police force which almost destroys him, terrorism, difficulties with his son; but nothing dents his belief that people are essentially good - indeed, he's known for choosing as colleagues people whom everyone else has given up on: they inevitably come good in the end, and are fiercely loyal to the Chief.

So why are the books so comforting? Well, the belief in kindness and goodness clearly helps. So does the version of winter, which is so much more magical than the dank, damp and dreary variety which we see so much more of. The stories are gripping, and the conversation is funny and sharp - it's as if you're in the company of a bunch of a delightful group of friends, who will always be able to entertain you.

And then there's the food. There is so much wonderful food. The owners of the bistro and guesthouse, Gabri and Olivier (I think that's his name, but may be wrong) produce the most delicious snacks and meals at the drop of a hat, but they're not the only ones; everyone seems to have their own speciality, except Ruth, who simply helps herself to what everyone else cooks. There are croissants, and brownies, and masses of maple syrup, and sandwiches with the most gorgeous fillings, and spicy soups - well. Who wouldn't want to live in Three Pines, despite the high incidence of murder?

If you haven't been there yet, do drop in. See you in the bistro.

Saturday, 11 September 2021

The Island of Missing Trees, by Elif Shafak

 I first came across Elif Shafak when I was listening to an online talk last year from the Hay Festival. She was on a panel with Philippe Sands, a writer I very much admire: partly because he is a human rights lawyer as well as an author. He's an engaging speaker as well - as was Elif Shafak, who impressed by her intelligence and composure. She also happens to be very beautiful, which isn't relevant to her writing, but is too obvious not to comment on.

Originally from Turkey but now living in England, she mentions in her acknowledgements that when she left Istanbul many years ago, she didn't realise that it was for the last time. So she knows what it means to be an exile from her home country. And that is one of the things this book is about - though there are many more.

At the centre of the story are two lovers, Defne and Kostas. Defne is a Turkish Cypriot, Kostas a Greek one, and they fall in love in 1974, just before civil war breaks out on the island. We only find out gradually what happens to them; the story unfurls over three time periods, 1974, the early 2000s, and the late 2010s. In this latter period, the viewpoint character is Ada, the couple's daughter - who knows little of their past, but is devastated by her mother's recent death, and does not understand why none of their relatives have reached out to her. But then her aunt arrives on the doorstep, and gradually the secrets of the past come out of hiding.

So it's about civil war, and the impact of the past on the present, and about the different agonies of those who leave and those who stay: it's about memory, and love, and growing up. It's also about trees. In fact a fig-tree is one of the main characters: it gradually reveals much of the story, which it gleans from the creatures which visit it - ants, butterflies, a mosquito, a bee. Kostas, a gentle man, studies insects and trees, and we learn how trees can help each other and defend themselves, and how interdependent all forms of life are.

It's a wonderful, magical book. The story is engrossing, but there's so much else to the book as well as the central tale, and the magic is the natural magic of the earth. I like the world this author has created, and I'm very happy to see that she has written many more books, which I look forward to exploring.

Thursday, 26 August 2021

Kathleen Jamie - Scotland's new makar

 I've just read that Kathleen Jamie has been named as the new makar (national poet) for Scotland. I met Kathleen a couple of years ago on a course at Ty Newydd, and afterwards I read her book of essays, Sightlines. In honour of her appointment, I'm reposting what I wrote about it afterwards.

A couple of months ago, I mentioned to a friend that I was about to go on a course on nature writing (at Ty Newydd – I wrote about it a few posts back). She chuckled, and said, “Oh, but nature writing’s so boring, isn’t it?”

I was taken aback and lost for words. Now, I would say to her: but what do you even mean by nature writing? How could it be ‘boring’ to read about something which I know she loves, just as I do? How could she not be interested in reading about what gives life to us, and makes our planet apparently unique - and how it is under profound threat?

Or perhaps I’d just give her this book by Kathleen Jamie and say, “Just give this a try. Go on – do.”

Kathleen was one of the tutors on the Ty Newydd course. I had heard of her before, but though I’d given this book to a couple of other people as a present, I hadn’t actually read it myself. I’ve just remedied this, and have found it completely engrossing – and therapeutic. It’s autumn, which is a beautiful season but has at its heart the fading of things – the fading of light, the falling of leaves, the gradual death of flowers. Of course it’s not all bad – there are birds that arrive as well as those that depart, and there are already buds on the bare branches. But still – it’s a season when it’s easy to succumb to a generalised feeling of sadness. And there are one or two things going on in the outside world which are also just a tad worrying.

So there have been mornings when I’ve woken up feeling gloomy. But as soon as I begin to read a chapter of Sightlines, I am taken into another place - and what a relief that is. That is perhaps a cliché: certainly, it’s my stock, easy answer when someone asks me what I like about reading: “A book can take you into another world…” But in this case, it really feels true. The book is a collection of essays. In most of them, Kathleen travels to Scottish islands, though there’s also one where she goes to a Norwegian museum and reflects on whale skeletons (in other essays, she writes about encounters with living whales); another where she decides she needs to see inside the body, not just outside, and examines pathogens under a microscope; another where she recalls an archaeology dig, from which the discovery of the ancient skeleton of a young girl lingers in her mind.

Wherever she goes, she is supremely attentive. She looks, she listens, she tastes, she touches, she thinks, she explores, she reflects. And she does this so effectively that the reader is right there with her, feeling the force of a wind strong enough to knock you over, seeing how gannets glint against a storm cloud, shocked at the speed with which killer whales slice through the water.

But she doesn’t simply describe what she sees. She muses, considers, makes analogies, asks questions. The reader follows not just her physical journeys, but the path her thoughts take. At the back of it all is an awareness of transience. As she says in the book’s final paragraph:

There are myths and fragments which suggest that the sea that we were flying over was once land. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, it was a forest with trees, but the sea rose and covered it over. The wind and sea. Everything else is provisional. A wing’s beat and it’s gone.

(She is flying in a helicopter as she leaves a remote, storm-swept island, where she had found a dead swan, describing its outstretched wing as a full metre of gleaming quartz-white, a white cascade: the swan’s wing, the wind, the helicopter flight – they all link into a chain of thought.)

Boring? Not by any stretch of the imagination.

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Jill Murphy: 5/7/49 - 18/8/21

You can probably just about see from this picture that this is a well-worn book. You'll see it even better from the picture below: one page has a tear in it and both are creased from frequent handling.

It's well-worn because it is well-loved. It was probably the book we read more than any other when our children were small. Just to see that picture, with the house, and the moon, and the cat, and the car, and the owl swooping across the night sky - and those first words: 'The hour was late." - takes me back to that moment when it's bedtime, and a child is curled up by your side, and together you know that you are about to embark on a magical incantation.

Yet there's no obvious magic in the story. It's a simple tale of Mr Bear, who is finding it very difficult to get to sleep. He tries going into Baby Bear's room, into the living room, into the kitchen, into the garden, into his car; but everywhere he goes, there is some noise that keeps him awake. Finally, he goes back into the house to his own bed, and is just drifting off... when the alarm goes!

But the pictures are perfect - the bears' expressions are brilliant - and the words are beautifully balanced and so good to read aloud. I read this so many times I knew it off by heart: I remember one time when I was shopping, with my first child in a pushchair. He started to get fractious. I recited Peace At Last, and all grew calm.

The book was written and illustrated by Jill Murphy, who also created the Large family (elephants, naturally), but is perhaps most famous for the Worst Witch series, which is about a girl called Mildred Hubble and her trials and tribulations at a boarding school for witches. The books, and the TV series which they gave rise to, where much loved by my daughter (and me too) - but Peace At Last has always retained the crown, and continues to do so with my grandchildren.

And yet I realised when I read the other day that Jill Murphy had died, at the far-too-young age of 72, that in an age when we know so much about so many writers, I knew nothing at all about her. I don't know why this is. From the photographs of her, she looks lovely, with a huge smile and an obvious sense of fun: she seems to radiate happiness. Perhaps she didn't court publicity: perhaps she didn't need to, and could simply allow her books to speak for her.

I'm so sorry she has died so soon. I wish her, as I wish all of us, Peace At Last.

Saturday, 8 May 2021

The Lamplighters, by Emma Stonex


The first thing to be said about this book is that it is very, very beautiful. The photograph doesn't actually do it justice: the cover depicts a lighthouse, surrounded by dark, swirling clouds and seas - rich crimson, ultramarine and black, with a scattering of gold - the colours are much more vivid than in the photo. In my edition, which is said to be a Waterstone's exclusive, the colours bleed over onto the page edges: such drama!

Publishers don't give such luscious treatment to a book unless they really have faith in it - and you can absolutely see why Picador would have had that kind of faith in The Lamplighters. it begins with a rivetting mystery. In December 1972, Jory, the boatman, takes supplies and a relief keeper out to the Maiden Rock Lighthouse, which is on a pinnacle of rock beyond Landsend in Cornwall: isolated and difficult to reach because of wild seas. Normally, the resident keepers would be waiting to help him moor the boat and unload, but today no-one is there, and Jory realises that something is very wrong. He goes to fetch help, and when they eventually manage to get into the lighthouse, they find that all three keepers have disappeared. The table is laid for two, and two clocks have stopped at the same time.

The mystery of what happened to them is never solved, although a possible explanation is eventually given in the book. The story is taken up in 1992, when a writer contacts the women who were left behind by the three keepers, saying he wants to undertake a new investigation. The stories of the three women are interwoven with the stories of the three keepers, and gradually, the complexities of their relationships - and what may have led to the tragedy - are revealed.

It's a very powerful book. The lighthouse itself is at the very centre of things, and it comes as no surprise to find out that Emma Stonex has always been fascinated by lighthouses. She vividly describes the wildness of the sea and the strangeness of the life on this inaccessible place, and her depiction of Arthur, the chief keeper, in particular, is subtle and deep. The book is a kind of memorial to the lighthouses and their keepers, for of course they are all automated now; they're surrounded with an aura of romance and heroism, rather as the lighthouse itself is surrounded by the elements of wind and water.

I felt slightly less satisfied by the supernatural element, which becomes more significant in the later part of the book. It felt as if this was introduced, but the author wasn't certain how much credibility to give it, so it wasn't fully realised. And there were one or two other elements which came in later on which felt similarly not quite right to me - can't really discuss them without giving too much away.

But those quibbles apart, this is a wild and wonderful book - one to read as the night draws in, and preferably with a storm rattling the windows - with maybe a branch tapping against the glass...

Sunday, 25 April 2021

The Last Bear, by Hannah Gold

This book was written for children - but that certainly doesn't mean it should only be read by children. It's original and captivating, and very timely.

The Last Bear is an unusual and enchanting book which doesn't shy away from difficult and pertinent issues - in particular, it looks at the question of climate change and what it's doing to life on our planet. But as well as this, it explores the loss of a parent, and what that does to the remaining parent as well as the child. If that all sounds very heavy, it's really not. The 'messages' emerge very naturally from the story - there's no sense whatever that the reader is being lectured.

April Wood is eleven, and lives with her father, a climatologist. Her mother died when she was four, so April scarcely remembers her - 'whenever she thought of her, it was like thinking of a lovely summer holiday she'd once been on.' Her father, however, has coped less well. He buries himself in his work, and scarcely notices that he has a daughter. So, for instance, April has to cut her own hair with a pair of garden scissors, because her father simply doesn't see that it needs attention. So April looks odd, and is teased at school. But she's not unhappy: she loves animals, and enjoys watching a family of foxes which lives in their unkempt garden: '...she preferred animals to humans anyway. They were just kinder.' That last, brief sentence really sums up how she relates to other children: she does not like school.

Then an opportunity arises for her father - and April - to go and spend a few months on a remote island - Bear Island - in the Arctic Circle. Despite her grandmother's misgivings, April is delighted, because she thinks that, as they will be the only two people on the island, it will bring herself and her father closer together - they'll make snowmen, they'll explore, they'll observe wildlife together - he will 'see' her. But none of this comes to pass: her father is too busy, engrossed in a job which should really be done by two people - quite apart from the fact that he never notices April anyway. (Really, you feel like shaking him. He's not intentionally cruel, but he is selfishly wrapped up in his own grief.)

She's disappointed, but she's a resourceful child, so she goes off on her own to explore. In particular, she believes that there might be a polar bear on the island - even though she's been told that there can't be, because since the ice has been receding because of climate change, bears can no longer reach Bear Island from Svalbard further north. But she turns out to be right - there is a bear, and it's in pain and in desperate need of help. 

The story of how she and the bear get to know each other, and how she helps it to regain its health and strength, is magical and very touching. I won't tell you what happens at the end, but trust me, your heart will be in your mouth. April puts herself in extreme danger in order to save the bear and get him back to Svalbard: her adventure, in the end, brings her closer to her father - who finally wakes up and realises how close he has come to losing his daughter.

Hannah Gold brings off a clever sleight of hand with this story. It is not, in some ways, realistic: a real polar bear would not, one imagines, allow a child to come so close to him, let alone give her rides on his back: a real organisation would not - one imagines - allow a man to take his small daughter to live on a remote island with no shops or facilities, let alone a school. And as for what happens at the end - well, health and safety would have conniptions.

But you accept all these things, because everything else about the story is so real and so convincing. The bear's physical presence is vividly evoked: his smelly breath, his size, his strength - and his plight. And April, with her courage and persistence, is a character you absolutely believe can win through, despite the enormous obstacles she faces.

The book is beautifully illustrated by Levi Pinfold. His pictures show just what a huge and powerful beast the bear is: April is tiny beside him. Tiny, but tough, imaginative and resourceful. It's a thoroughly delightful book - I loved it.