The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Pat Barker is a great writer of both contemporary and historical fiction. The Regeneration Trilogy, (Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993), and The Ghost Road (1995)), is a monumental achievement. It explores the First World War, combining history and fiction, using the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers as characters. She won the Booker Prize for The Ghost Road. However “Toby’s Room” and “Double Vision” were less to my liking, so I did not have such high expectations from this novel.
In “The Silence of the Girls” Barker retells The Iliad, but primarily from the point of view of the women involved. In particular, this is the story of Briseis, the wife of the King of Lyrnessus. Briseis is captured when the Greeks take her city, slaughter her husband, and sons, and award her as a prize to Achilles.
There is no romanticising of war in this story. The way women are treated as possessions to be bartered or given away when they are young and fertile, and cast aside when no longer attractive, is vividly described.
Barker uses modern idioms rather than archaic speech in writing dialogue. Initially this grated on me a bit, but as the novel progressed I became used to it.
Particularly moving is her description of the scene where the King of Troy, Priam, steals into the Greek camp and begs Achilles to return the body of Hector, Priam’s son. There is a great Michael Longley poem, “Ceasefire” which also describes the same scene. In both cases, Priam’s words are quoted and are particularly memorable:
“I get down on my knees and do what must be done
and kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son”
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