Pat Barker’s timely new novel gives voice to the over­looked fe­male char­ac­ters of Greek mythol­ogy

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents - By ERICA WAG­NER

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.

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