Harmonising the silenced voices of historical women deemed too powerful, and those in the modern day side-lined for their age.
It is hardly a new angle, in 2024 (or 2023, when this book was published), to look at a female figure in history with a less than perfect reputation and ask - why was she portrayed this way? What was the angle? It is true that much of history was written by men, and female figures in it serve not as people but as exemplars, or sometimes cautionary tales. This is what happens when I woman has too much force of character, too much ambition. But if we look back on the last decade or more, we can see plenty of stories that seek to provide a voice to exactly those voiceless women, and find or create a narrative that asks what might have been going on underneath the propaganda. Greek myth retellings, for instance, are rife with these. And so, while the exercise has just as much merit as it always has, the shine has somewhat worn of it, and it's no longer quite the novelty, or the daring act of historical advocacy that it might once have been.
However... while this is very much one of the cornerstone's of Tracy Fahey's They Shut Me Up, in which a librarian undertakes a project to find the truth beneath the demonising myths of local figure Máire Rua (Red Mary), vilified in local legend as a bride of Satan and murderer of 25 husbands, it is not the only cornerstone. While attending to this narrative of a historical woman determined to fight for her home, children and selfhood, she also attends to the narrative of her narrator, Annie. Because Annie also has been silenced. She's just turning 50, a single woman, no children, and is finding herself increasingly sidelined, shamed and patronised by the people around her, mocked by younger women for still being childless and alone. Living in the shadow of a traditionally successful sister and an overbearing family, she finds herself closed down into a smaller and smaller box by a world uninterested in the struggles or even selfhood of women past the age of childbearing. Her doctor dismisses her issues as just the fussings of a menopausal lady, and her only solidarity is in a friend her own age. She feels trapped and dismissed, and in Máire Rua, sees something of an echo of her own struggles.
And these two voices are quite literally intertwined in the story, as Annie finds herself hearing words she hasn't spoken, urging her to be strong, to fight back, to live more boldly, and hearing the tale from the woman herself of the reality of Máire Rua's existence.
The two themes do, in fact, synergise incredibly well. While not always the same in their attitude and approach, there is a pleasing symmetry to the issues the two women experience. In some, the same dismissal echoing down the ages. In others, oppositional - where Máire was vilified for her brazenness and punished for refusing to back down, Annie is quiet, downtrodden by the world, and suffering for her silence. And by tying it to something else, by giving it that second angle of interest, Fahey has made the well-trodden ground of unfairly maligned historical woman into something new.
The story also veers gently into body-horror territory, though never making the full step, another choice that sits very well with the lingering unease of Máire's gruesome death in the background, another conscious echo in the modern narrative. While it never takes the full step into grimness, that constant undercurrent of the physical serves very well to underline both stories, and ties Annie's thoroughly into how much of her personal struggles link back to societal perceptions of a changing body. Her changing body.
It helps as well that Annie has a lovely, clear and authentic voice, that feels so realistically like being in someone's head, especially in her responses to the worries she faces through the story. Every response she has, my instinctive reaction was "yes, this is how someone would cope with that", and it bedded me ever deeper into her as a perspective, giving the narratorial voice such a sense of intimacy and sympathy. When she makes decisions that might, in the abstract, be described as foolish, they are always so well substantiated by her emotional state, her reasoning, her experiences, that it doesn't matter how foolish they are, they seem utterly believable. There are several passages watching her experience a possible health scare, and her unwillingness to go to the doctor about it, the lingering of her attention on the worst possible outcome supplied by a google search, that felt vividly real, making me want to put a hand on her shoulder in solidarity.
And so, for the most part, the story is a successful one. In structure, it feels like an expanded short story - a core concept of two intertwined lives that has been spun out a little to give it more depth, more texture, and made the richer for the time taken to absorb it gently and slowly.
But... there had to be a but... the ending doesn't quite line up with the message of the rest of the story. Where everything else builds so gently, so carefully, letting the thoughts and the themes simmer together and settle with the reader, the ending... somewhat comes out of nowhere. And the choice of resolution casts new light backwards on the rest of the story, requiring the reader to re-examine and wonder quite where this came from, and how it changes the context of the rest of things. It is an ending that for some, will be powerful, dramatic and uplifting. But for me, I found that it rather undermined the messaging that went before, tainting a story of historical female demonising with a complexity that does not serve the message at all. I closed the final page, and found my satisfaction turned to doubt and frustration, the thesis I had thought I understood undercut by what could feel like a cheap surprise, unforeshadowed and unsubstantiated.
I don't normally like to hedge, but I do feel this is an ending that will very much ride on the baggage the reader brings in with them, their own feelings about myth and magic and misogyny and the world that are unignorable when they relate in so closely to the conclusion of the story. For me, my own opinions about them made it less than perfect, too many downsides to make the complexity and surprise worthwhile. But, for others, whose experiences with these themes will be entirely different, I can so easily see how it is a great crescendo and a powerful reveal.
Alas, that was not me. And so this remains a book with great promise, beautiful characterisation, and a lovely combination of thematic resonances that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at the very last. A worthwhile read, an interesting one, but not ultimately a satisfying one.
Highlights: extremely well-characterised and sympathetic narrator, interesting twist on the idea of retelling a historical story from a woman's perspective
Nerd Coefficient: 7/10
Reference: Tracy Fahey, They Shut Me Up, [PS Publishing 2023]
POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroformtea.bsky.social