BREAKING THE SILENCE
Pat Barker’s timely new novel gives voice to the overlooked female characters of Greek mythology
Pat Barker’s latest novel allows a Trojan noblewoman to speak at last
There’s one thing Pat Barker wants to make clear. ‘A very destructive thing that has happened is that myth has come to mean something that isn’t true,’ she says, ‘when in fact it means the exact opposite of that.’ We are speaking on the phone about her new novel, The Silence of the Girls. It is a powerful retelling of the story that opens The Iliad, arguably the foundational text of all Western culture and literature. Homer’s epic begins with an argument between the great Greek heroes of the Trojan War, Agamemnon and Achilles; they are fighting over a woman, Briseis, a noble Trojan who has been taken captive and made a slave. What did Briseis think of this? Homer doesn’t seem to care. But Pat Barker does: The Silence of the Girls gives a voice to someone who has been voiceless for thousands of years – and in that respect, Barker says, it’s utterly contemporary, despite being set in the Bronze Age.
The myth in question – the truth – is men’s indifference to women’s silence. Most people don’t even remember that this is how The Iliad begins. ‘It’s not noticed,’ Barker says bluntly. ‘Men don’t hear it. They genuinely don’t hear it. Like they look around a group of people collected around a table and they simply don’t notice that there are no women there. They just don’t see the absence of women.’
In these post-Weinstein, Me Too days, nothing could be more urgent than the addressing of this silence. Barker – who won the Booker Prize in 1995 for her World War I novel The Ghost Road – is pleased to be part of a rolling chorus of writers speaking for women who were never heard before. There’s the droll, spiky poetry of Carol Ann Duffy in The World’s Wife, ventriloquising Mrs Midas and Queen Kong; there’s Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, also digging into Homer by considering the story of Odysseus’ long-suffering wife. In House of Names, Colm Tóibín took on the house of Atreus: the tales of Agamemnon and his wife Clytemnestra, their son and their daughters.
Because Briseis is a mythical rather than a historical character, she is, Barker says, ‘wide open to being reinterpreted for each generation’. For the 21st-century reader, Briseis’ lack of agency – the way in which she can only act within the confines of male control – may be startling, at first. But Barker sees clear modern parallels. ‘It became more and more obviously topical,’ she says. ‘The idea that all of this is happening in the past is just a nonsense. Look at the situation of refugee women in our large cities, women who can’t work and so are paid in kind, who have nowhere to live and cannot report sexual assault. There’s a very real sense in which those women are slaves.’
By bringing Briseis into the pages of her fine new novel, Barker does much more than give one mythical woman a voice. She makes her reader reflect on the silence that is still all around.
‘The Silence of the Girls’ by Pat Barker (£18.99, Hamish Hamilton) is out now.