The best books of ‘herstory’: breaking the silence

Who am I?

I am an Irish writer, perenially fascinated by the question: Who gets to tell the story? Who owns the narrative? I’ve discovered, over and over again, that women often don’t. We are airbrushed out of all kinds of stories: Political, social, and personal. That’s why the power of absence, of silence, has always been at the root of my inspiration as a writer. And Greek myth is a rich source of the silencing of women everywhere. These books that I have listed are but a small sample of the hundreds that have intrigued me over the years, or angered me, but above all, have made me think. 

I wrote...

The Years That Followed: A Novel

By Catherine Dunne,

Book cover of The Years That Followed: A Novel

What is my book about?

I’ve always been drawn to the kind of story that doesn’t get told: The one that paints the so-called ‘small canvas’ of ordinary life. Too many stories get swept aside by the broad brush of history. Many of those lost or silenced voices belong to women. Winners, after all, get to own the narrative. 

The Years That Followed draws on the visceral Greek myth of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, of the tension between the powerful and the powerless. But this time, it is the women who get to speak. Transposed to twentieth-century Ireland, Spain, and Cyprus, Calista and Pilar insist that we listen. In parallel narratives, they tell us ancient tales of love and lust and murder and revenge. This time, they own the narrative.

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The books I picked & why

The Penelopiad

By Margaret Atwood,

Book cover of The Penelopiad

Why did I love this book?

In Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad the author does what I love best: She breathes life into an ancient story and tells it from an unfamiliar point of view. 

In The Penelopiad, we hear the ancient story of the Odyssey – told not by its boastful hero, Odysseyus –  but by his long-suffering wife, Penelope. Breaking her silence of thousands of years, and accompanied by her twelve maids, she tells us about her less-than-faithful husband, and what his exploits during the Trojan War cost her. 

The hitherto silent Penelope is clever, witty, and wildly entertaining. Her voice is clear, forthright, and ironic. She and her maids give us a whole new outlook on the hero who has owned a particular version of his own story for far too long.

By Margaret Atwood,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Penelopiad as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Penelope. Immortalised in legend and myth as the devoted wife of the glorious Odysseus, silently weaving and unpicking and weaving again as she waits for her husband's return.

Now Penelope wanders the underworld, spinning a different kind of thread: her own side of the story - a tale of lust, greed and murder.

The Myths series brings together some of the world's finest writers, each of whom has retold a myth in a contemporary and memorable way. Authors in the series include Karen Armstrong, Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt, David Grossman, Natsuo Kirino, Alexander McCall Smith, Philip Pullman, Ali Smith and…

The Song of Achilles

By Madeline Miller,

Book cover of The Song of Achilles

Why did I love this book?

The world fell away from me as I read this exciting page-turner. I wish I could have the experience of reading it again for the first time. 

Once more, this is a narrative based on an ancient myth. This time, it is the tale of Achilles, high-born, handsome, brave, ‘best of all the Greeks,’ and his friend Patroclus: a shy, awkward nobody living in Achilles’ shadow.

In Miller’s retelling of their friendship, the narrative becomes a tender, devastatingly beautiful love story, told with passion, originality, and wisdom.

Myths tell us much about ourselves: They may appear to be about wars and territorial battles and power-hungry kings. But in reality, their focus is on human beings and how we negotiate the spaces between us.

By Madeline Miller,

Why should I read it?

26 authors picked The Song of Achilles as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?



'Captivating' DONNA TARTT
'I loved it' J K ROWLING
'Ravishingly vivid' EMMA DONOGHUE

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms…

Book cover of The Silence of the Girls

Why did I love this book?

I am a huge admirer of Pat Barker’s work. My expectations were high when I began reading The Silence of the Girls.

I was hugely rewarded. The book weaves together into a seamless, compelling narrative, all those themes that are so close to my writer’s heart. The silence that surrounds the lived experience of women down through the ages, and the necessity to hear the voice of the ‘ordinary’ woman as she negotiates her way through the maze of rules that were not made by her.

Here, the central character is Briseis, a woman awarded as a prize to Achilles. But Agamemnon – powerful, nasty, and brutal – seizes Briseis for himself. 

In vivid, breathtaking prose, we live through Briseis’ unforgettable fight for survival.

By Pat Barker,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Silence of the Girls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'Chilling, powerful, audacious' The Times

'Magnificent. You are in the hands of a writer at the height of her powers' Evening Standard

There was a woman at the heart of the Trojan War whose voice has been silent - until now. Discover the greatest Greek myth of all - retold by the witness that history forgot . . .

Briseis was a queen until her city was destroyed. Now she is a slave to the man who butchered her husband and brothers. Trapped in a world defined by men, can she survive…

Book cover of Women & Power: A Manifesto

Why did I love this book?

This is a short, sharp, illuminating look at women’s place in the modern world, written by the wonderful Mary Beard. She is incapable of writing a dull sentence. Her insights are fascinating and stimulating. It’s impossible not to be drawn in.

In the Preface, she writes that sometimes, we don’t even notice the ‘mechanisms that silence women’, so deeply embedded are they in Western culture. They ‘sever’ women from the centres of power.

She draws on her astonishing knowledge of the classical world and tells us ‘the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans can help to throw light on our own. When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice’.

By Mary Beard,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Women & Power as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At long last, Mary Beard addresses in one brave book the misogynists and trolls who mercilessly attack and demean women the world over, including, very often, Mary herself. In Women & Power, she traces the origins of this misogyny to its ancient roots, examining the pitfalls of gender and the ways that history has mistreated strong women since time immemorial. As far back as Homer's Odyssey, Beard shows, women have been prohibited from leadership roles in civic life, public speech being defined as inherently male. From Medusa to Philomela (whose tongue was cut out), from Hillary Clinton to Elizabeth Warren…

Book cover of Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland

Why did I love this book?

The author is one of Ireland’s most respected historians. In this superb analysis, he explores the public and private worlds of Irish sex. 

Over the decades, Irish society, hand-in-hand with a dominant Catholic Church, succeeded in silencing generations of women.

We are still trying to come to terms with the iniquitous system of Magdalen Laundries and mother and baby homes, where pregnant young girls and women were hidden from sight so that the public would not be shamed by their sexual transgressions.

The text is accessible and illuminating. It explores hidden areas of modern Irish society and is a must-read, in my view, for anyone interested in this country.

By Diarmaid Ferriter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Occasions of Sin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ferriter covers such subjects as abortion, pregnancy, celibacy, contraception, censorship, infanticide, homosexuality, prostitution, marriage, popular culture, social life and the various hidden Irelands associated with sexual abuse - all in the context of a conservative official morality backed by the Catholic Church and by legislation. The book energetically and originally engages with subjects omitted from the mainstream historical narrative. The breadth of this book and the richness of the source material uncovered make it definitive in its field and a most remarkable work of social history.

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