The Silence of the Girls

Pat Barker first turned to the subject of war with her fifth novel, Regeneration, to escape being pigeon-holed as a chronicler of the lives of working class women. Regeneration grew into a commercially and critically successful trilogy of First World War novels, with a second series of linked novels set during the same war following between 2007 and 2015, making her one of England’s most important fictional interpreters of the period. With The Silence of the Girls, Barker turns to a different conflict, the Trojan War, once again proving her deep understanding of the forces which drive conflict, and its effect on individuals. Having turned to the trenches in part to prove she could write men, she ironically provides a new perspective on events outside the walls of Troy by presenting most of the narrative from the point of view of one of the captured Trojan women, Briseis, the disputed ‘prize’ at the centre of the bitter quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon:

“For me it was the silence of the girls, the fact that this girl is being quarrelled over by these two great, distinguished, eloquent men and yet the girl herself says nothing. She has no opinion, she has no power, she has no voice. It was the urge to fill that vacuum that made me go back and start retelling the myth yet again.”

In her opening lines Barker makes clear that she will, once again, have little time for the idea that war is glorious:

“Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles…How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.”

The novel opens with the fall of Lyrnessus, Briseies’ home city, and her subsequent capture by the Greeks. This, of course, provides an instant fore-shadowing of the fate of Troy. Barker is clear on the distinction between the treatment of men and women in the aftermath of the defeat:

“For once, women with sons envied those with daughters, because girls would be allowed to live. Boys, if anywhere near fighting age, were routinely slaughtered. Even pregnant women were sometimes killed, speared through the belly on the off chance their child would be a boy.”

The women are spared as prizes for the victorious army, and Briseis becomes Achilles’ prize:

“I was a cow, tethered and waiting to be sacrificed.”

Briseis frequently compares her new position to that of an animal or an object. Referring to the women weaving, she says, “Only we weren’t the spiders; we were the flies,” and, rather than watching Achilles like a hawk, she similarly reverses their roles, watching him “like a mouse.” One of her more important duties is to serve at his table:

“Nobody wins a trophy and hides it at the back of a cupboard.”

Barker is at pains to capture exactly the reality of Briseis’ role as a slave:

“This is what free people never understand. A slave isn’t a person who’s being treated as a thing. A slave is a thing, as much in her own estimation as anybody else’s.”

The story of The Iliad unfolds from Briseis’ point of view; her silence and invisibility allow her to hear and see much of what happens in Achilles’ quarters, and around the camp (ironically she has more freedom to wander there than she did as a wife in Lyrnessus). Her comment that she watches Achilles “like a mouse” becomes prophetic when she recalls that Apollo is the god of mice: when Agamemnon offends Apollo by refusing to return Chryseis to her father, the Greek camp is overrun by plague. When Agamemnon is finally forced to return Chryseis, it is Briseis he takes in her place, leading to Achilles’ refusal to fight:

“I was the girl who’d caused the quarrel. Oh, yes, I’d caused it – in much the same way, I suppose, as a bone is responsible for a dogfight.”

Though Briseis tells the story, Achilles is, in many ways, still at the centre of it. According to Agamemnon he is “the most violent man on earth”, and Barker has commented that “Achilles is furious all the time.” When he and Patroclus decide that Agamemnon must be told to give Chryseis back, he still continues to rage about it:

“Decision taken. With some men that might have been the end of it, but not Achilles. He ranted and raved, fists pumping, spit flying, working himself up into a state of near insanity.”

Where Briseis must contain her anger, Achilles releases his at every opportunity. You might even say he overpowers the narrative at one point as Barker presents the opening of Part Two from his point of view. Barker makes no attempt to contort English into some imaginary semblance of Ancient Greek, her colloquial language instead capturing the essence of the Greek soldiers, for example when Odysseus tries to persuade Achilles to fight. She is particularly good on his relationship with Patroclus, whose kindness to Briseis reflects his very different character:

“Because I know what it is like to lose everything and be handed to Achilles as a toy.”

Barker resists reducing them to a homosexual couple, presenting a relationship which is as complex as it is close. At one point Achilles thinks:

“The truth: Patroclus had taken his mother’s place.”

The Silence of the Girls is an enlightening and engaging novel, one which takes a story we know well and strips it back to its raw heart. Rather than a eulogy for the Greek and Trojan dead, it is a tribute to the survival of the women.

Quotations from Pat Barker from an interview with Martha Greengrass for Waterstones.

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12 Responses to “The Silence of the Girls”

  1. Tredynas Days Says:

    I found parts of this almost unbearable to read. Incredibly powerful but intensely violent and brutal

  2. Marina Sofia Says:

    Excellent review. I just finished reading this one myself and wrote a review eauer today (to be posted Monday). It was very modern, very relevant, not at all anachronistic.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Sadly, my only experience of Barker’s work was not a particularly positive one – a book group read of Toby’s Room, which suffered from the fact that only one of us was familiar with its predecessor, Life Class! So, I feel I ought to give her a proper try at some point, maybe with this one as it seems to have garnered such positive reviews.

  4. Radz Pandit Says:

    I have not read any Pat Barker yet, but the premise of this one really appeals and I am hoping to get to it soon this year. I thought the opening lines were really strong!

    • 1streading Says:

      I have read most of her previous work, but, even if I hadn’t, I think I would have got this one – it’s always interesting to read reinterpretations of the classics.

  5. Caroline Says:

    I read Marina Sofia’s review first and wasn’t too sure about it. Yours makes me want to read it now. I was very surprised to see her choose this topic but in a way it makes sense, as you say, to move from the male to the female point of view about war. I do wish though, she’d written another one about WWI from a female perspective. I loved her trilogy so much.

    • 1streading Says:

      Her second trilogy set around the First World War, beginning with Life Class, features a number of female characters – have you read that?

      • Caroline Says:

        No, I haven’t. I wasn’t aware of that. Hence my comment. Thanks for mentioning it. I’ll have to look into it. After Toby’s Room, which I didn’t care for, I didn’t feel like returning to her for a while.

      • 1streading Says:

        Toby’s Room is the middle one of the trilogy I’m referring to, with Noonday the final volume. They all revolve around the same characters. It could be you didn’t enjoy it precisely because it is in the middle!

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