The Si­lence of the Girls by Pat Barker Ara­bella Cur­rie


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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.

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