Books to get stuck into this month

James Walton

This month two historical dramas take us on a thrilling journey back in time…

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

(Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)

Pat Barker made her name writing about overlooked, often mistreated women. She then moved on to war, with the deservedly prize-laden Regeneration trilogy, about the traumatised soldiers of the Western Front. Now, she’s combined the two subjects in a blistering novel that views the Trojan War through the unfamiliar medium of female eyes.

The book begins as it means to go on—which is to say quite brutally. The narrator is Briseis, queen of a small town near Troy that’s attacked by the Greeks. The men and boys are slaughtered; the woman and girls carried off as slaves or—if they’re pretty enough—concubines. Aged 19, Briseis’ own fate is to be made a bed-mate to Achilles, the man who’s just killed her husband and brothers—and who, from close-up, proves to be a deeply strange, mother-fixated psychopath.

Along with the hair-raising war scenes, Barker provides a thoroughly-imagined account of life in the Greek camp. But of course, the subject of powerful men exploiting powerless women also has a topical resonance that, as Barker admits, she didn’t expect to provide when she embarked on a novel set in the Bronze Age.

 

Prague Spring by Simon Mawer

(Little Brown, £18.99)

Fans of Robert Harris wondering what to read while they wait for his next book could do a lot worse than Prague Spring: a cracking fictional tale set in a beautifully-researched (and very well-chosen) slice of history.

The setting is Prague in 1968 where the Czech experiment to build “socialism with a human face” means people can now speak their mind about life under Communism. But for how long? Sam, a diplomat at the British embassy, has a local girlfriend—which gives him admiring access to those Czechs revelling in the new freedoms, confident they won’t be reversed. On the other hand, he’s getting reports of Soviet troops massing on the border. Meanwhile, two Oxford students have hitch-hiked to the city, naively believing they’re there to witness the triumph of the good guys.

Needless to say, the reader is always aware that the political and social excitement Mawer captures so well was tragically misplaced. Yet, knowing more than the characters do only serves to crank up the tension—and to make their optimism all the more heart-rending—as the climactic invasion approaches.