‘I lay there, hating him, though of course he wasn’t doing anything he didn’t have a perfect right to do. If his prize of honour had been the armour of a great lord he wouldn’t have rested till he’d tried it out: lifted the shield, picked up the sword, assessed its length and weight, slashed it a few times through the air. That’s what he did to me. He tried me out.’
I remember my first encounter with the work of Pat Barker when I was in the midst of my A Level English Literature classes. We had spent months and months studying the work of men on war, only a handful of lessons were dedicated to female writers writing during or about the First World War, and amongst them was Barker’s Regeneration trilogy published in the nineties. I was mesmerized. Although shell shock, or PTSD, was a common affliction for men who had returned from the front, up until this point in the module we had never read anything specifically exploring the mental strain and after-effects of such a catastrophic and inhumane event.
When I saw that Pat Barker was releasing a new novel this year I jumped at the chance to read it. Instead of reaching back almost a century ago to draw out her themes, as she does in Regeneration, she reaches as far back as the beginning of the Western literary tradition. As Mary Beard highlights in Women and Power, women have been silenced as far back as time began. Enter Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey: attempting to speak out in a ‘communal’ space about a song that is being performed she is told in the equivalent of the Ancient Greek term to ‘shut up’ and return to her chambers to resume ‘women’s work’. And she isn’t ordered by just anyone – she is ordered by her own adolescent son who has taken over the household in Odysseus’ absence. In a similar vein, Barker takes as her point of departure the episode in Homer’s The Iliad when Briseis is awarded to Achilles – the greatest Greek fighter – after his army sack a neighbouring town to Troy. In times of war, then and now, women are often seen as objects to be bartered for, used and abused. They have no voice, no bodily autonomy and are given no choice. In ‘great’ epics such as Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey mortal women are very often silenced in more ways than one and it is this silencing that Pat Barker rails against in her aptly named novel, The Silence of the Girls.
Beginning in the midst of battle, Briseis is held up in the citadel awaiting her fate amongst the other women whose husbands and sons are outside fighting and dying by the dozen. In her misery and anxiety she is restless. There is nothing for her to do but wait. As the noise of battle nears Briseis rushes to the top of the citadel, where she can look out over the ensuing fight. As she reaches the top, her cousin, Arianna, offers her hand out to her. She is about to plunge to her death and suggests for Briseis to join her. But Briseis refuses. She wants to bear witness to the awful atrocity before her that is forcing the women – some of them just girls – to take drastic action; that is slewing her loved ones. It’s the least she can do. As the Greeks inevitably win the battle, Briseis and the rest of the girls – some barely out of adolescence – are shipped off to the Greek camp to be traded like mere cattle.
Barker writes persuasively and believably in The Silence of the Girls. From the opening I was immediately swept up in this world that seemed so familiar because of its influential place in the Western canon, but also surprisingly relevant to today’s society. Figures that are familiar from Greek mythology – Achilles, Odysseus, Agamemnon and Paris – crowd the narrative. They are hotheaded, stubborn men who are fiercely violent and arrogant. Caught up in their mood swings are the young girls and women they use as slaves. What Barker does well is highlight the double bind these women are in. Conquered and abused by the enemy, they would no longer be accepted back into their old lives, deflowered and disgraced as they are. This is a common occurrence that happens even now in times of war. I remember reading a true account of a Yazidi woman a few months ago who was kidnapped by ISIS along with a number of her school friends. When they managed to escape and found their way back to their families they were seen as a dishonour; defiled and, therefore, unable to marry. The idea that women are just ‘collateral damage’ when it comes to war is an idea that still persists in some men’s minds even now. In The Silence of the Girls, Barker explores this complete lack of power and autonomy that women have over their own lives. Decisions about their fate – who will become their ‘master’ – are decided by powerful men in private without any consideration for the woman and her basic human rights (similar to exclusively male-dominated governments deciding on a woman’s right to abortion in our modern society).
One thing I couldn’t get my head around, though, in The Silence of the Girls was the first person narrative of Achilles which creeps into the novel halfway through. At first he comes across as a despicable and irredeemable person. Attempts are made to understand his behaviour – his mum despised the earthly world and left him as soon as she was able to. His treatment of Briseis isn’t as bad as some of the other warlords. Though, despite not being physically violent, he is mentally abusive at times. When his right-hand man and lifelong friend dies in battle Barker spends far too much time, in my opinion, describing the pain Achilles is feeling. Without wanting to I almost felt sympathy for him and I can’t understand why a novel, which is meant to be railing against the silencing of women and girls throughout history, would allow our tendencies to side with those who are doing the silencing. Perhaps Achilles has woken up to the horrifying fate of women in war, or perhaps he is only worried about his own progeny, and that’s why he acts the way he does just before his inevitable death in battle. Who knows and is it really important? I find it troubling that these are the aspects of the novel I am left to mull over instead of all the shocking – but not so shocking – ways a story that is thousands of years old still resonates with the world today.
‘The Silence of the Girls’ by Pat Barker was published on 30th August. Thank you to Penguin Books UK, via Netgalley, for the review copy.