Woman and war – some books worth reading

I have recently finished two very different books which are about women caught up in war and the consequences to them. In both these stories the oppression of the women is undertaken by men.

The first book is The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. I have enjoyed this author’s books about the two world wars but this is a departure for her in that it is set in Ancient times at the siege of Troy. It is, apparently, a retelling of The Iliad but I can’t say much about that because I haven’t read the original. This is a powerful book concentrating on the experience of Briseis who was a Trojan queen and is now owned in every possible way by Achilles. The book is set in the Greek camp as they lay siege to Troy and is about the women’s experience of sexual slavery. It is a harrowing but brilliantly written book. The author eases over some of the brutality and treats the supernatural in a magic realism manner but she is completely realistic about what it means to be in this situation. The book concentrates on the people and the limited choices they have depending on their power – men as well as women. I was completely captivated by the writing.

The second book is The Lost Boys by Catherine Bailey. This is a true story set in WW2 about the daughter of one of the plotters in the attempted assassination of Hitler in 1944. Hitler determined that the families of these men would be wiped out and Fey and her two sons are taken by the German authorities, separated and incarcerated. Fey is aware that her experience under the Nazis is not as horrendous as that of others but she is in continual fear for her life and then faces having to try and find her sons at the end of the war which is not easy as their location has been deliberately hidden. This is a well told story and the experience of being totally without power and your fate being in the hands of men who may decide to dispose of you at a whim is strangely similar to that of my first book.

I have reflected on other books which I have read that are similar. Obviously, the first that comes to mind is The Diary of Anne Frank but it is many years since I last read that. A more recent, similar book is The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es which is a memoir of a young Jewish girl, also in the Netherlands, but who survives the war. The story of what she and others have to do to survive and the atmosphere of fear in which they live is well evoked. The author is clear that good people sometimes behave badly and that people make decisions based on fear or anger and it is worth remembering that none of us have any idea how we would react in a similar situation.

A novel which looks at some of the themes which have featured in the books above is An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay. The book is set in Haiti and tells of the kidnap of the daughter of a rich man by a criminal gang who want him to pay a ransom. Mireille’s father does not want to pay the ransom and the gang use her body as a lever to persuade him to pay up. This is a novel about a woman’s powerlessness in the face of men and it echoes the books above especially in talking about the decisions which people make in difficult situations. Although this book is not obviously set in a time of war you could argue that the circumstances are similar in an island of horrendous poverty and corruption where actions such as these seem like the only way for some men to achieve their aims. This is not one for the faint hearted.

Another novel about women in a war like situation whose actions are determined by others is Home Fires by Kamila Shamsie. Like the Pat Barker this is a reimagining of an ancient story – in this case it is a contemporary retelling of Sophocles’ play Antigone.  It is set among the British Muslim community and features characters who have been radicalised and others with torn loyalties. The women’s actions are very much determined by those of their families and loved ones and there is a continual sense of them trying to resolve issues and situations which are way out of their control. It is based on a Greek tragedy so, as you might expect, it does not end well for anyone.

The last book that came to mind when I thought about women caught up in war like situations was The Five by Hallie Rubenhold. This book is actually about the five women victims of Jack the Ripper and you could argue that his criminal acts cannot be described as “war”. I do think, however, that the environment and social situation in which these women lived that allowed them to become victims resembled war on the poor and especially on poor women. The lack of protection and safety for women at the bottom of society and the fact that generations of true crime enthusiasts have defined them as prostitutes, when they were not, is part of a victim blaming culture of war against women which continues today.

None of these books is an “entertaining” read but they are all worth your time and I recommend them. I think they are all well written and bring to the fore the powerlessness of women in war or war like situations. A warning for those who may have problems – all these books are harrowing to a degree and portray brutality and violence so they may not be appropriate for you.

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