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.