Hostage to for­tune

A re­work­ing of the Iliad from a fe­male char­ac­ter’s per­spec­tive has its own Achilles heel.

New Zealand Listener - - BOOKS & CULTURE - By LAU­REN BUCKERIDGE

The Iliad is one of the ear­li­est and most widely read works of Western lit­er­a­ture. Even those who have avoided the text will know some of it, es­pe­cially if they have suf­fered through 120 min­utes of Brad Pitt in Troy.

Writ­ten by the Greek poet Homer, it re­counts the fi­nal weeks of the Tro­jan War, a bat­tle for He­len of Sparta. The Si­lence of the Girls, by Booker prize-winning Pat Barker, fol­lows the trend to retell clas­sics legends from a fe­male per­spec­tive – that of Bri­seis, for­mer Queen and Achilles’ prize of war (played in Troy by Rose Byrne).

Dis­ap­point­ingly, Barker re­stricts Bri­seis to be­ing a wit­ness to his­tory. Per­haps Barker in­tended to stay his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate – although there are in­ac­cu­ra­cies – but this leaves the story lack­ing pur­pose. Bri­seis was a com­mod­ity in the Iliad, and it’s not ev­i­dent she’s been up­graded here.

Flip­ping a clas­si­cal tale lends the au­thor end­less cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties, yet here, Bri­seis re­mains a pas­sive ob­ject, and the story be­comes dis­heart­en­ing. Even though Bri­seis is a slave, a tena­cious pro­tag­o­nist would be more sat­is­fy­ing.

Dur­ing the sack­ing of Bri­seis’s city,

Lyr­nes­sus, we see strong fe­male char­ac­ters like her cousin Ari­anna, who jumps to her death to avoid Greek cap­ture, or Bri­seis’s mother-in-law, who, bedrid­den, clutches a dag­ger as she awaits the in­vaders. Her in­abil­ity to match the strength dis­played by the other fe­male char­ac­ters makes Achilles out­shine her, even if she is the nar­ra­tor.

Barker de­tails the pathos bril­liantly, how­ever, and is Homeric in her raw and touch­ing de­scrip­tions of grief and pain. The lan­guage makes this book worth read­ing, but Barker’s fail­ure to em­power Bri­seis proves this novel’s own Achilles heel.

Mad­den­ingly, Bri­seis’s strength is re­alised only in the last sen­tence: “Once, not so long ago, I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story – and failed. Now my own story can be­gin.” It’s an un­der­whelm­ing end­ing which might leave the reader won­der­ing what the point of the story is. If only Bri­seis had been lib­er­ated ear­lier.

Pat Barker: fail­ure to em­power. THE SI­LENCE OF THE GIRLS, by Pat Barker (Pen­guin Ran­dom House $37)

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