Tag Archives: Pat Barker

Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls (Hamish Hamilton 2018)

Pat Barker is one of the great war novelists. Mostly she has written about the wars of the 20th century, most notably in her Regeneration trilogy. The Silence of the Girls goes back to the first war story in western literature, and tackles the Trojan War. She’s not the first to do so: in recent years, David Malouf’s novel Ransom focuses on the episode where King Priam begs Achilles to hand over the corpse of his son, Hector, and Alice Oswald’s stunning book of poetry Memorial  excavates the Iliad, consisting mainly of translations of the death scenes. The Silence of the Girls tells Achilles’ part of the story, mostly from the point of view of his trophy slave Briseis.

Some readers have complained that though the book sets out to tell the story of the women, whose voices are unheard in the original text, the men’s stories are still central and much more interesting than the women’s. I don’t see it that way. I think the book sets out to tell the story of Achilles, bringing to bear Briseis’ perspective as a non-combatant who is generally regarded as a prize rather than as fully human. I don’t think Pat Barker sets out to subvert the tale of Achilles’ heroics and passions so much as to contextualise them and enrich our understanding of them.

There are a couple of pages in The Silence of the Girls describing the deaths of individuals at Achilles’ hands that I would have assumed were Pat Barker’s invention if I hadn’t read Alice Oswald’s filleted translation (yes, I haven’t actually read the Iliad): the original makes the brutality of warfare viscerally explicit. What Barker does add is Briseis’ imaginings of how the slain men’s mothers must have seen them as children. The book asks, and sets out to answer, not so much the plaintive question, ‘What about the women?’ as the much more interesting ones, ‘Where were the women and what did they think about it all?’

The result is brilliant. I cried a lot.

Pat Barker’s Noonday

Pat Barker, Noonday (Hamish Hamilton 2015)

noonday.jpgJust a short post on this:

Pat Barker’s Regeneration  trilogy is a magnificent work about World War One. Noonday is the final book in a different trilogy – one which began, in Life Class, before that war, and which takes its characters, those who survive, into the London of the Blitz.

I read Life Class too long ago – all I remember is the life drawing class that it opens with, in which the woman protagonist is dumped on by the instructor, and my blog entry about it explains why I didn’t go chasing after the second volume, Toby’s Room.

Noonday is worth reading for its evocation of London during the blitz. These days when the slogan’Keep Calm and Carry on’ and its parodies adorn a million mugs and tea towels, and the movie of Dad’s Army approaches with its no doubt charming and hilarious ragtag segment of the land army (not that there’s anything wrong with either phenomenon), it’s good to have this vivid reminder that it was a time of great suffering and great heroism.

But the main characters, three artists with varying degrees of success, aren’t all that interesting. Two of them are married at the start and not at the end, and it’s never very clear what happened. There’s adultery, which seems to be a big deal, at least for one of them, but I kept thinking of Bogart’s line in Casablanca: ‘It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.’

Then there’s a weird subplot involving a grossly overweight woman who is both a charlatan claiming to give the bereaved messages from their dead loved ones, and a genuine psychic. I didn’t know what to make of that, and in the end didn’t care.

So, at the risk of sounding as if I’m ten years old, I’d say read it for the account of London during the Blitz, but skim the talky-talky lovey-dovey bits.