War is men’s business,” Hector says in the Iliad. Pat Barker begs to differ. The British novelist has made war her subject, winning the 1995 Booker Prize for Ghost Road, the final novel of her remarkable World War I trilogy, Regeneration. In her new novel, The Silence of the Girls, she takes on the foundational war story of the Western canon, giving voice to the muted women of Homer’s Iliad.
It’s a rich premise, since in the Iliad (if not the Odyssey) Homer’s women remain underrealised — static as statues, waiting patiently upon their plinths to be awarded as prizes, enslaved or sacrificed. Even Helen, the cause of the crisis between the Greeks and the Trojans, remains little more than a disembodied name.
While the Iliad begins in medias res, with the weary Greek armies encamped on the shores of Troy nine years into their stalemated war, Barker starts her story a few months earlier. The Greeks are closing in on the outlying Trojan settlement of Lyrnessus, home of Briseis, who is destined to become Achilles’ war trophy. When Agamemnon commandeers her, Achilles becomes famously enraged, refuses to fight and leaves the Greek army rudderless. Achilles’ beloved Patroclus goes out in Achilles’ armour and is killed by Hector, sparking an act of extraordinary vengeance. It’s potent stuff, and almost entirely blokey. Women cause the fights, but the men have them, and they get all the action and all the speaking roles.
Barker wants to end that silence. She allows us to get to know Briseis before Achilles and Agamemnon start fighting over her. It is Briseis’ voice, in a first-person narration, that largely carries Barker’s interstitial chronicle. Occasionally, and briefly, Barker switches into third person. The reason for the switch remains, for this reader, unsatisfying and opaque. Nothing in particular, either narratively or structurally, seems to be accomplished by the change of voice. Indeed, both voices are, for a writer of Barker’s large gifts, curiously flat and banal.
I began to lose faith on the first page of the novel when Briseis describes the retreat of the Lyrnessus women and children, hastening from their homes to seek refuge in the citadel: “Like all respectable married women, I rarely left my house — although admittedly in my case the house was a palace — so to be walking down the street in broad daylight felt like a holiday.” The jarring inauthenticity of this sentence is sadly characteristic of the novel as a whole. It’s implausible that a Bronze Age woman in a besieged city would be enjoying a stroll as she hears “shouts, cries, the clash of sword on shields” just on the other side of the city gates and knows that her husband and brothers are out there, fighting for their lives.
And soon the clichés fly like arrows, blotting out the sun. A dying man is “wriggling like a stuck pig”; the Greek looters are like “a swarm of locusts”, bad memories “cut like daggers”.
If, as they say, each generation requires its own translation of Homer, what Barker attempts to offer here is an Iliad for the age of #MeToo. However, it’s unlikely many readers need to be reminded that an ancient army was “a rape camp”, as Briseis reiterates in her final soliloquy.
If Barker is really after conveying the violent abuse of women in wartime, she’s remarkably circumspect about it. Rape by Achilles: “What can I say? He wasn’t cruel. I waited for it — expected it, even — but there was nothing like that, and at least it was soon over.” Rape by Agamemnon: “So what did he do that was so terrible? Nothing much, I suppose, nothing I hadn’t been expecting.”
I have mixed feelings about these cool, sanitised depictions: relief to be spared harrowing details of sexual violence, but also vexation. To confront a subject redolent of pain, then to shy away from describing it seems, in some ways, a feeble choice, if not a betrayal of the countless women who have suffered, and who suffer still, from war’s ardent atrocities.
It’s not that Barker doesn’t have it in her to convey horror. In a searing moment, she describes Agamemnon prying open Briseis’ mouth and spitting a gob of phlegm into it. It’s ghastly and cruel and one of the few instances when this reader felt authentic emotional recoil because, yes, that is exactly the kind of depravity in which a brutal conqueror might engage.
Henry James famously warned historical novelists never to go back more than 50 years beyond their own era, since “the old consciousness” would surely elude them. I’ve always thought James undervalued the universality of human experience — the timeless nature of love and hate, grief and joy and all of the common, powerful emotions that shape us. The endurance of the Iliad is in itself evidence of this. We all know talented, arrogant asses like Achilles, who indulge their rages no matter what the cost, in boardrooms just as on battlefields.
Unfortunately, Barker’s voices are dissonant and unpersuasive. The girls, alas, remain silenced.
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