The Iliad from the women’s per­spec­tive

Waterloo Region Record - - Books - BETHANNE PA­TRICK The Washington Post

Pat Barker’s “The Si­lence of the Girls” joins the ranks of re­cent books by women that ad­dress the clas­si­cal era, in­clud­ing Madeline Miller’s “Circe,” Mary Beard’s “SPQR” and Emily Wil­son’s trans­la­tion of Homer’s “Odyssey.” Barker’s novel, a retelling of Homer’s “Iliad” from the per­spec­tive of Bri­seis — a princess whose cap­ture leads to her his­tor­i­cal place as Achilles’s “bed-girl” — not only charts slightly dif­fer­ent ter­ri­tory but raises the stakes for all his­tor­i­cal writ­ing in that it re­minds us to do as Abi­gail Adams urged her hus­band: “Re­mem­ber the ladies.”

Wait, you say: haven’t we been re­mem­ber­ing them for a while, now? Scores of ex­cel­lent books have been writ­ten about women re­cently, from Dawn Tripp’s “Ge­or­gia” (O’Ke­effe) to “White Houses” by Amy Bloom (Eleanor Roo­sevelt and Lorena Hickok) to the up­com­ing “The Age of Light” by Whit­ney Scharer (Lee Miller).

Most of the books writ­ten about his­tor­i­cal women fo­cus on the fa­mous ones, who are also the most priv­i­leged, which leaves un­der­served women of­ten over­looked. A small per­cent­age of books il­lu­mi­nate the lives of those trapped in class struc­tures or who wear kitchen smocks in­stead of em­broi­dered corset cov­ers.

In her First World War-era Re­gen­er­a­tion tril­ogy (in­clud­ing “The Ghost Road,” which won the 1995 Man Booker Prize), Pat Barker up­ended ex­pec­ta­tions about who a hero might be. The char­ac­ter of Billy Prior was lower class, bi­sex­ual and pro-labour rights. In “The Si­lence of the Girls,” Barker does some­thing sim­i­lar with women on the home front. Bri­seis was once a queen, but the only rem­nant of that sta­tus in the book is a pur­loined em­broi­dered tu­nic that be­longed to her fa­ther.

While all of the “big names” ap­pear — Agamem­non, Achilles, Priam, Hec­tor, He­len, Pa­tro­clus, Thetis — most of Bri­seis’ time is spent wait­ing to be used sex­u­ally or in the med­i­cal tents at­tempt­ing to learn some­thing. A pawn ex­changed be­tween pow­er­ful men, Bri­seis learns to keep her head down and her eyes dry. Only once does she fal­ter, when she must leave Achilles for Agamem­non: “Achilles cried as I was taken away. He cried, I didn’t. Now, years later, when none of it mat­ters any more, I’m still proud of that. But I cried that night.”

That sen­tence ends Part I; in Part II, nar­ra­tion from Bri­seis al­ter­nates with chap­ters from the per­spec­tive of Achilles, as he moves to­ward his fate­ful fight with Hec­tor of Troy.

When King Priam ar­rives to col­lect his son’s body, he re­marks that he does what no man has done be­fore, as he kisses Achilles’s hands, “the hands of the man who killed my son.” Bri­seis, stand­ing nearby, thinks: “And I do what count­less women be­fore me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my hus­band and my broth­ers.”

“The Si­lence of the Girls” is a novel that al­lows those who were dis­missed as girls — the women trapped in a cel­e­brated his­tor­i­cal war — to speak, to be heard, to bear wit­ness. In do­ing so, Barker has once again writ­ten some­thing sur­pris­ing and elo­quent that speaks to our times while de­scrib­ing those long gone.

“The Si­lence of the Girls,” by Pat Barker, Pen­guin, UK, 336 pages, $41

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