Pat Barker invites us to hear the untold story of women who have been bit-parts, cameos or sex objects in the Greek mythsby Chris Moss / January 28, 2019 / Leave a comment
Classical myths bristle with war, murder, rape and slavery. Men perpetrate the abuses while other men write them down, conjuring powerful forces—gods, mainly—to justify them. Pat Barker’s novel, which draws on the Iliad and is told through the eyes of a young female victim, invites us to hear the untold story of women who have been bit-parts, cameos or sex objects.
Barker shuns the lofty symbolic tone of Greek myth. Her protagonist, Briseis, is fully realised. The women in her circle laugh and joke, puke and piss, and mock the men who wield power—Ajax and Hector are fallible, flesh-and-blood males. Briseis’ master and chief abuser, Achilles, has seemingly infinite prowess in battle and communes with his goddess-mother on nightly swims, but he snores, sweats and has tantrums when he doesn’t get his way.
Barker is best known for her Regeneration trilogy, which reflected on the First World War through the twin lenses of psychotherapy and poetry. The Trojan War is the backdrop here, and the narrator spares no detail when it comes to the slaughter.
A seething anger, more powerful for being carefully modulated, ripples through the novel. The yarn skips along brightly, yet demands we reconsider the male-centric forms that underpin civilisation. Briseis defies the roles of “Achilles’ bed girl” and “Agamemnon’s spittoon” that destiny has imposed on her.
As the battle rages, Barker drives home her case that men are trapped in their mythologies of competition and violence, and that our loftiest heroes are moulded around psychopaths, monomaniacs, liars and cheats. The hopeful subtext, that women can write their own quiet truth, struggles to emerge from the ordeal that is Homeric Troy and it is notable that Helen, a sometime symbol of potential female liberation, is omitted from the denouement. But The Silence of the Girls is a bold experiment by an accomplished novelist.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)