Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards, is one of her best to date, which is saying something when you think about the brilliant Regeneration. I didn’t study Latin or Class Civ at school – it wasn’t that sort of place – and I’m aware of the gaping hole in my reading as a result. So many cultural references and plots draw on the Greek and Roman myths and narratives, and I’ve enjoyed piecing it all together myself, even if I do have to keep checking who killed/abducted/fought over/married whom. Like Madeline Miller’s Circe and The Song of Achilles, The Silence of the Girls has made me want to dig out a copy of The Iliad again. However, the woman that Barker has so vividly created here, Briseis, will only feature briefly, given a line or two as a plot device to explain why Achilles withdraws from the war against the Trojans at a key moment in the decade-long struggle. Revisiting this well-known tale from the perspective of a woman is perhaps well-overdue (I’m looking forward to reading Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships, due out this May, and Emily Hauser’s For The Most Beautiful now) and it feels timely.
As with some of her other novels, Barker takes us behind the established narrative and shows us the human tragedy. The Trojan women are unsilenced, brought to a life of their own, even if that life is now that of a slave to the Greeks. Some of these women manage to maintain a sense of their own identity, forming a close-knit group in order to survive. In one scene, the women are called to clean and prepare the plague-ridden body of Myron for his funeral. As they begin, Achilles and some of his men come with clothes for the dead man. Briseis tells us,
‘I knew what he was thinking: that Myron would be safe in our hands. If fear of earthly punishment didn’t make us treat his body with respect, then obedience to the gods surely would. Women are, after all, renowned for their devotion to the gods.
We waited until the door had closed behind them. Then one of the women picked up Myron’s poor limp penis between her thumb and forefinger and waggled it at the rest of us. The women hooted with laughter – and immediately clapped their hands over their mouths to silence themselves. But nothing could contain that laughter which rose in pitch and volume till it turned to whoops of hysteria that must have been clearly audible outside the hut.’
These are the women, the spoils of war, who will survive their enslavement by whatever means they can. Briseis tells their stories, adding them to the (largely) male narratives we already have.
Barker also has Briseis capture the historical sweep and scale of The Iliad in clean lines of her own. On her arrival at the Greek camp, she describes the ‘hundreds of black, beaked, predatory ships’ in the curve of the bay. Briseis has grown up during the ‘interminable war’, telling us, ‘I’d been a little girl playing with my dolls when first the black ships came.’ She captures the heart-breaking detail of young sons being wrenched away from their mothers, the systematic rape and slaughter that is regarded as an inevitable part of war.
The desire to reclaim the abducted Helen is obviously one of the most well-known elements of Homer’s original epic narrative, (and seeing Helen from Briseis’ perspective is fascinating) but the struggle between Achilles and Agamemnon over Briseis forms the central point for this novel and allows us also another look at the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus (so movingly dealt with in The Song of Achilles – I wept at the end of that one). The depiction of Achilles is particularly interesting in that he is very much a human – and vulnerable. Barker has his goddess mother, Thetis, make an appearance, but the gods do not play overt parts in her retelling. After praying to Apollo for some sort of revenge, Briseis tells us, ‘Nothing happened. Well, of course nothing happened. Isn’t nothing what generally happens when you pray to the gods?’ It is human anger and desire for vengeance that drive forward events here.
It’s the first month of the year (just) and I’ve already got a confirmed choice for my 2019 Top Ten list. This is such a brilliant read, so satisfying in its characterisation and its approach to this old tale. I’m about to start re-reading it – it’s that good.