Review – The Air You Breathe, by Frances de Pontes Peebles


The Air You Breathe
by Frances de Pontes Peebles

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 464 Pages

Release date: August 21, 2018

Synopsis: 

The story of an intense female friendship fueled by affection, envy and pride–and each woman’s fear that she would be nothing without the other.

Skinny, nine-year-old orphaned Dores is working in the kitchen of a sugar plantation in 1930s Brazil when in walks a girl who changes everything. Graça, the spoiled daughter of a wealthy sugar baron, is clever, well fed, pretty, and thrillingly ill behaved. Born to wildly different worlds, Dores and Graça quickly bond over shared mischief, and then, on a deeper level, over music.

One has a voice like a songbird; the other feels melodies in her soul and composes lyrics to match. Music will become their shared passion, the source of their partnership and their rivalry, and for each, the only way out of the life to which each was born. But only one of the two is destined to be a star. Their intimate, volatile bond will determine each of their fortunes–and haunt their memories.

Traveling from Brazil’s inland sugar plantations to the rowdy streets of Lapa in Rio de Janeiro, from Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood back to the irresistible drumbeat of home, The Air You Breathe unfurls a moving portrait of a lifelong friendship–its unparalleled rewards and lasting losses–and considers what we owe to the relationships that shape our lives.

rating

five

“Fame is longing. Not yours, but the audience’s. A star is nothing more, nothing less, than the public face of private desire.” 

The Air You Breathe is a story about music, ambition, power, and love. Dores has a lopsided friendship with Graça, tainted by Graça’s selfishness and Dores’ position as a servant in her home. As the girls grow older, sexuality further complicates things. If your reading experience is anything like mine, you will find yourself in the unusual position of disliking Graça while totally understanding why Dores loves her. Despite all her flaws, she is charismatic, almost magnetic, and Dores would do almost anything for her.

While factors like classism make the scenario in The Air You Breathe particularly extreme, I think most of us will relate to Dores on some level. We’ve all had a friend or significant other who was clearly less invested in the relationship than we were. We’ve all felt unappreciated and stuck around anyway, at least for a while. The relationship between the two girls is so well developed and believable, and watching it change as they grew up together was captivating, with love and resentment playing equal parts.

“If remembering tells us who we are, then forgetting keeps us sane. If we recalled every song we’d ever heard, every touch we’d ever felt, every pain no matter how small, every sadness no matter how petty, every joy no matter how selfish, we could surely lose our minds.” 

The novel is intensely atmospheric, transporting us from 1930’s Brazil to 1940’s Hollywood. Bazil is characterized by the samba music both Graça and Dores fall in love with. Hollywood is equal parts glamour and struggle, as fame and success can’t shield the characters from racism and suspicion.

The author’s writing style is eloquent, almost poetic, and simply watching her play with words was one of the highlights of the novel. This worked particularly well as it is told from Dores’ point of view, and she is passionate about writing. Dores develops a distinct voice and her love of language shines through on every single page. The Air You Breathe is an emotional, beautiful read.

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Thank you for reading! If you’ve read The Air You Breathe, please share your thoughts in the comments! What’s another novel you’ve read lately where relationships between female characters were integral to the plot?

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Review – The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker

The Silence of the Girls
by Pat Barker

Genre: Historical Fiction, Mythology

Length: 293 Pages

Release date: September 4, 2018

Synopsis:

The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman: Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman watches and waits for the war’s outcome: Briseis. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.

When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position to observe the two men driving the Greek forces in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate, not only of Briseis’s people, but also of the ancient world at large.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war–the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead–all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker’s latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives–and it is nothing short of magnificent.

rating

five

Would you really have married the man who’d killed your brothers?

Well, first of all, I wouldn’t have been given a choice. But yes, probably. Yes. I was a slave, and a slave will do anything, anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.

While it is accurate to say that The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of the Trojan War, that may give you a false impression of the novel. This is not a story about brutality on the battlefield. It’s not a story about the injustice of premature death. While these things make appearances in the narrative, The Silence of the Girls is about the slow, tragic, spiritual death that befalls the women who are held captive in times of war.

The story primarily focuses on Briseis, the unwilling concubine of Achilles. She has been taken as spoils of war and has no opportunity to grieve the deaths of her family before being thrown into Achilles’ bed. Her desperation and simmering resentment are somewhat reminiscent of Offred’s demeanor throughout The Handmaid’s Tale. 

I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son. 

Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on a ll sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought: And I do what countless woman before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers. 

As you might expect, The Silence of the Girls has a fiercely feminist bent to it. The sole aim of this novel seems to be to give voice to women who are largely forgotten in these stories. While it is easy in the abstract to see women like Briseis and know that their fates are tragic, this novel brings that tragedy into sharp focus on each page. Briseis’ day to day life is broken up with moments seemingly designed to break her down. While the nights spent with her captor may be the most sensational aspect of this, perhaps more heartbreaking is are the moments when reminders of her old life bleed into the present in the cruelest ways, such as when she says an enemy solider wearing a tunic she had made for her slaughtered father.

The overall tone of the writing feels very modern considering the subject matter. Depending on yours tastes, you may find it a bit anachronistic or you may simply find it immensely readable. Personally, I thought the style worked very well and allowed the story to flow naturally for a modern audience. And while it deals with tragedy and dehumanization, Briseis seems to find a sense of hope and light, though it may be tinged with anger. Her story will light a fire in your soul.

We’re going to survive–our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams–and in their worst nightmares too.

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Thank you for reading! Do you have a favorite modern novel that tells the story of an ancient myth? Do you prefer stories which stick closely to the original mythology or do you prefer when an author puts their own spin on the story? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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