It cannot be too common for a novel set 4,000 years ago to chime so strongly with events of the present day, but Pat Barker’s magnificent The Silence of the Girls does just that. It is a retelling of "The Iliad", the story of the Trojan War fought by men over a beautiful, voiceless woman, Helen—stolen from her home and sent to Troy. In Homer’s epic poem, and in most subsequent tales of the Trojan War, the men take centre stage and their names are familiar to us still: Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus and Ajax. But Barker tells her story from the point of view of Briseis, who is queen of Lyrnessus at the beginning of the novel and Briseis’ feelings about the hero Achilles are clear from the novel’s devastating opening lines: "Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles . . . How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those this; we called him ‘the butcher’."
As Briseis waits in the citadel, crowded in with all the other high-born women, Achilles and his army sack the city of Lyrnessus, massacre the men and rape the slaves. She is one of the "lucky" ones, taken by Achilles as a prize of war and shipped to the Greek camp on the battleground at Troy.
It is the current debate about power and control in sexual relationships and abuse, as evidenced by the online campaigns #MeToo and #TimesUp, that makes The Silence of the Girls an incredibly timely read. When Pat Barker speaks to me over the telephone from her home in Durham she relates, with some amazement, that while she was proof-reading the final manuscript of the novel she was "picking up the newspaper and reading something that seemed directly relevant to this book that was set in the Bronze Age! It’s never happened to me before and it was most remarkable experience."
The Silence of the Girls is the first time that Barker has chosen to write about the ancient world, although some of her best-known novels have dealt with war and its consequences. The Ghost Road, which won Barker the Booker Prize in 1995, was the third part of the acclaimed Regeneration Trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door) set against the First World War. As Barker points out, she is not alone in her fascination with the Greek myths. A number of contemporary novels have mined a similar seam. "It’s not just me, I think there is a general movement at the moment among writers to go right back to the beginning." She cites Madeleine Miller’s A Song of Achilles, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, a retelling of the myth of Antigone, and Colm Toibin’s House of Names, about the death of Agamemnon and its roots in the killing of Iphigenia.
"Why are we doing it? Well, I don’t think, as individuals, we are altogether aware of why we are doing it. Perhaps we are trying to go back to the beginning of European civilisation now because we instinctively feel that European civilisation might be coming to an end!" More optimistically, she reckons that a real cultural shift might be under way, in the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp, "and that would in itself, I think, trigger a kind of re-examining of the past [and the treatment of ] women".
Barker can’t recall exactly when she first read "The Iliad": "but I haven’t a classical background or anything like that so I didn’t read ‘The Iliad’ until I was more than adult." It made a deep impression— she remembers hearing "the silence of the girls as I think most women who read ‘The Iliad’ do"—but it took a while to surface creatively in her own work although she does tell me that one of the characters in her 2007 novel Life Class likens the silence in the Café Royal after the First World War has broken out to the silence of the girls during the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, so the idea had obviously been gestating for a decade or so.
"I do think that sometimes the seed that sets you off on the process of writing a novel can have been around for many years, even decades, before it actually —for some mysterious reason—comes to fruition" she says. "I think it’s almost a good sign if an idea has been fermenting for quite a long time in a sort of semi-conscious way. I’ve learnt to distrust the staggeringly brilliant new idea that was triggered by something that happened quite recently. Ha ha! You need the dog-eared thing that’s been around for a long time, quietly nagging away at you."
It was always Briseis she wanted to write about. "She has this very great fall, from being a queen to being a slave literally overnight," observes Barker. "Obviously that makes [the story] more dramatic, but it also gives her a background in which she has been used to having a certain amount of control over her life and even power within the confines of the palace." It is this that gives Barker’s protagonist "a kind of resilience I think, a moral resilience, to what is happening to her. A younger girl, or a girl who had had no adult life, would not have the same resources."
She never considered writing the book from the point of view of a lower-born woman: "A girl who’d been a slave in one of the cities of the Trojan plains and she’s just moved to be a slave in the Greek camp, I think they were probably quite phlegmatic about it; if you’re a slave, does it really matter who you are a slave to?"
But telling the story from Briseis’ point of view presented Barker with a technical problem. "You are brought very hard up against the fact that the person whose actions drive the story is Achilles, and there’s no way around that. His anger is the engine that drives the plot. The first line [of ‘The Iliad’] is ‘Sing, oh divine muse, of the ruinous anger of Achilles.’ It is his story but her voice. That’s a first for me. Normally the central character is also the person who is driving the plot but she is so completely powerless in the situation she’s been put in that she can’t drive the plot. The most she can hope to do is bob along on the surface of the wave rather than actually sink."
A traumatic life
When Briseis first arrives at the Greek camp she is deeply traumatised by what she has witnessed from the citadel. Barker writes of "the awful, straining, wide-eyed terror" of those early days. Briseis discovers, as Achilles’ "prize of honour", his reward for killing 60 men in one day, that her only real duty is to wait on him and his captains at dinner and, of course, to be raped every night.
Barker does not shy away from describing the brutal reality of conquest and slavery, the massacres and the sexual violence, and this is a visceral novel, but not a bleak one. Through the camaraderie of her fellow "prizes"—the other high-born women—Briseis finds another identity within the camp, "not based on the way she looks or the function she performs in bed which is what she has been systematically reduced to". Briseis starts helping in the field hospital, mixing the herbs for medicine. "It’s when she’s got the pestle and mortar in her hands and she is learning about something that fascinates her, that she starts to come back to life and be a human being again. She has this insight that slaves are not just treated as objects, but there’s a very real sense that a slave becomes an object, and thinks of herself as an object. Work, not love, is her way of reasserting her identity."
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