The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker Arabella Currie
The Silence of the Girls By Pat Barker Hamish Hamilton £18.99 Oldie price £16.90 inc p&p
Barker’s retelling of the Trojan War resembles the dazzled seconds after stepping inside from bright sunlight: the ‘shadowless glare’, as Barker puts it, while your eyeballs reboot. It describes such seconds brilliantly – its protagonist stumbling as she shelters from the invading Greeks or encounters the dark murk of a ship’s ‘underbelly’.
With its puzzling combination of old and new, tradition and innovation, the book itself moves in and out of shadows, swimming strangely between darkness and light.
On the one hand, it seeks to break the silence of the forgotten women of the Trojan War. Its focus is Briseis, the slave of Achilles who is seized by Agamemnon in the quarrel that leads to Achilles’s fatal withdrawal from battle.
Barker paints in bright, individual colours the ‘common women’ of the Greek camp, retrieving these slave voices from behind the blanket silence of The Iliad. She takes, for example, a passing reference in Book 23 to ‘a woman’, given by Achilles as first prize for a chariot race, and turns her into Iphis, Briseis’s closest friend.
These snapshots of the Trojan War revisited are rivetingly done, and there is both pleasure and insight to be had from seeing familiar scenes through a different pair of eyes – Priam and Helen on the walls of Troy, reduced to a ‘glint of sunlight’ from his crown and a ‘white dot’ leaning out over the battlements.
On the other hand, the focus of the book remains squarely on the Iliadic heroes, with Achilles remaining ‘dominant’, as Briseis says, ‘drowning out every other voice’.
While some chapters are told from Briseis’s point of view, many others are in the third person, but focused on Achilles. Barker only takes one chapter to tell the entire story of the raped and enslaved Trojan women, and Hecuba, markedly unsilent in Greek literature, speaks only a few garbled words.
The book is much subtler than a straightforward reinterpretation of a canonical text. It enacts its own silencing of obscured voices of the past, promising a Briseiad which never really appears.
‘I’d been trying to escape… from Achilles’s story,’ says Briseis, but ‘I’d failed’, and Barker daringly dips into this seam of ‘failure’.
The gulf between the women’s voices and the third-person narrative is increased still further by the sheen of First World War camaraderie that envelops the treatment of Achilles and Co. Sometimes this evokes interesting parallels between First World War poetry and Homeric epic, as when Barker slyly refers to ‘the strangeness of this meeting’ between Priam and Achilles. It also leads to a certain bathos: Achilles, watching Patroclus fight for his life mutters, ‘Sod that.’
But perhaps its starkest consequence is the glaring whiteness of the Greek heroes as good old English officers: the ‘white and drawn’ face of Achilles, striped with tan lines from his helmet; or the freckles ‘dotting’ the nose of ‘great, blond, raw-boned Ajax’.
A book that sets out to excavate forgotten voices of conflict speaks at its loudest in the voices of blond, chummy and well-spoken soldiers. I couldn’t decide whether Barker’s precipitate doubling back and forth between the two voices is a failure or a stroke of genius. Perhaps her purpose is exactly to unsettle the reader, caught out by that dazzling combination of light and shadow.