The best books of ‘herstory’: breaking the silence

The Books I Picked & Why

The Penelopiad

By Margaret Atwood

Book cover of The Penelopiad

Why 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.

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The Song of Achilles

By Madeline Miller

Book cover of The Song of Achilles

Why 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.

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The Silence of the Girls

By Pat Barker

Book cover of The Silence of the Girls

Why 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.

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Women & Power: A Manifesto

By Mary Beard

Book cover of Women & Power: A Manifesto

Why 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’.

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Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland

By Diarmaid Ferriter

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

Why 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.

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