The Waterstones Interview: Pat Barker on The Silence of the Girls
Lyrical, moving and full of fire, Pat Barker's latest novel, The Silence of the Girls is a brilliant re-imagining of The Iliad, as witnessed by the women of the Trojan War. Here, Barker discusses what drew her back to the mythology and the timeless relevance of questioning who tells stories and why it matters.
Across a long and acclaimed career, Pat Barker has forged a reputation for stories of lives lived out unseen. She’s a writer who follows the clues in what is often left unspoken and untold, breathing life back into the dead and finding new stories in the silence. It should, perhaps, come as no surprise then that her work is peopled by an assortment of ghosts; invisible figures, un-named soldiers, history’s forgotten people. To this canon of work she now adds her latest novel, The Silence of the Girls. A masterful re-telling of Homer’s Iliad from the point of view of the conflict’s powerless and enslaved, it moves the story away from the heroism of the battlefield, giving voice to the women of the Trojan War. Through these unacknowledged witnesses Barker crafts a powerful new kind of epic: a timeless, blisteringly vivid song of grief, anger and survival.
It’s not the first time, of course, that Homer’s epic has invited reinvention. When I ask Barker about what drew her to the mythology, she suggests that her interest lay in looking at the unheroic spaces in the story that other writers have previously ignored.
‘You’ve got these two absolutely brilliant characters going head to head with each other, Achilles and Agamemnon’, she says, ‘and I think that, throughout history, that is what has pulled people back to The Iliad. But the people going back to this story have been men and what drew them back wasn’t what drew me back. For me it was the silence of the girls, the fact that this girl is being quarrelled over by these two great, distinguished, eloquent men and yet the girl herself says nothing. She has no opinion, she has no power, she has no voice. It was the urge to fill that vacuum that made me go back and start retelling the myth yet again.’
The voice that Barker resurrects to tell her tale is that of Briseis. A former queen and slave - given to Achilles as a prize of war - Briseis is the unwitting catalyst for Troy’s eventual downfall. As a witness, she is luminescent; angry, fearful and ever-watchful. She provides an entirely new perspective on the story and its so-called heroes.
‘She goes to bed one night a queen and goes to bed the next night, after being raped by Achilles - because it is rape - a slave’, Barker says. ‘It’s impossible to imagine a greater descent or a more sudden or more traumatic change in somebody’s life than that. Other people have pointed out that even Achilles, who does, in a way, love Briseis, calls her his prize of war; he calls her “it”.’
It’s hard not to draw comparisons between the ‘girls’ of contemporary fiction and those that people Barker’s story. Her girls - she reminds us again and again - are girls indeed, children whose very childhood has been sold out from under them.
‘Briseis is fifteen, Iphis is fourteen’, Barker reflects. ‘The girls who were virgins when they were captured were very, very young because if you were still living with your parents, the chances were you were fifteen or even younger than fifteen. They are girls, even in our terms.’
If Homer’s original poem turns humans into legends, The Silence of the Girls is a novel that performs the opposite transformation, moving the story from the epic - a form Barker perceives as excluding women’s stories - to the human. It’s something that Barker considers essential to the novel’s construction.
‘I don’t know which comes first really’, Barker muses. ‘The epic is, fundamentally, a very hostile environment for women; the lives of women are not epic in that sense. So as soon as you foreground women you’re more or less bound to start questioning the epic form and as soon as you question the epic form, you have a way to bring women into the narrative.
‘The Silence of the Girls is a woman’s view of battle. Her labour, her courage, her bearing of pain is devalued on the battlefield because what that labour produced - and the hard work needed to bring that through to young manhood - can all be wiped out in a second on the battlefield. It is very much an assertion of women’s perspective and women’s values.’
Barker is careful to foreground those values against a culture seeped in extreme masculinity and violence. Although most of the narrative of The Silence of the Girls is told by Briseis, Barker makes the decision to intercut her account with that of Achilles, as he experiences overwhelming anguish at the death of Patrocolus. It’s a sequence that allows Barker to counteract Briseis’ anger and grief - swallowed down and unvoiced - with Achilles’ own violent outpouring, both legitimised, and ultimately consumed, by conflict.
‘I think the source of Achilles’ anger is very interesting’, she comments. ‘In The Iliad I think it’s not clear where the anger is coming from, you just know that Achilles is furious all the time. And, of course, the fury is being taken out in battle but is it not also being stoked by battle? The fact that you can be, and routinely are, violent doesn’t mean you discharge that anger, it may in fact be feeding it and so it’s a self-perpetuating state of mind.
‘At one point I think I say that all of Achilles’ emotions are shades of anger; he literally doesn’t really feel very much else. In a way that is the male stereotype, the one emotion that men are unequivocally allowed to express without fear of being thought in any way effeminate is anger’.
Barker’s fiction often strays into the territory of relationships that don’t easily conform to a comfortable definition. The Silence of the Girls gives her ample ground to explore the ways in which close relationships - even those founded on inequality and violence - can shape identity.
‘The bond between men in battle is no doubt extremely deep, extremely passionate’, Barker says, ‘but, generally speaking, not sexual and I think most of us lose the sense of a relationship between men which can be physical and passionate and not sexual. I’m fascinated by the relationship between two people - not just between men - that is sex and love and also something else. I think what can go on in a very deep relationship is a kind of twinning which is a fused identity. That is what has happened with Achilles and Patroclus and is what makes Patroclus’ death so moving and almost a death-blow to Achilles himself, it’s like a large part of him has died. The damage is being continually stoked by the fact that he cannot inflict permanent injury on Hector’s body. Obviously that’s a supernatural event but it also gives a sense of the self-defeating character of this extreme violence that never actually achieves what it sets out to achieve.’
Readers familiar with Barker’s award-winning Regeneration trilogy will find a significant resonance in The Silence of the Girls. It’s a parallel Barker is keenly aware of, even going so far as to embed the language of the First World War poets into the novel’s text. She mentions that a passage in the book describing ‘streets cobbled with their brothers’ borrows from Wilfred Owen’s ‘Insensibility’.
‘I was trying to refer back - well refer forward really - to that war’, Barker explains. ‘It’s interesting that Christopher Logue’s verse retelling of The Iliad is full of references to the Vietnam War and you get this sense that the Trojan War is the archetype and almost any conflict could be referred back to it. There are bits of The Iliad in Owen’s poetry which I hadn’t realised when I was writing the Regeneration trilogy. I knew, but hadn’t quite taken in, how completely soaked in the classics the young officers fighting in the trenches were.’
For Barker, these parallels extend to the geographical and psychological battlefields of these two conflicts. For her, it’s a comparison which helps the process of re-rooting and re-humanising Homer’s epic for our time.
‘It’s a war of attrition’, Barker says. ‘According to Homer they’ve actually been sitting there for nine years before The Iliad opens, fighting over the same stretch of ground - which by this stage would have been utterly destroyed - fighting over a wasteland. One side advancing, then the other, neither getting anywhere; it’s got an unmistakable echo - or pre-echo.’
Much of Barker’s story takes place on the fringes of the conflict, filling in the gaps and exploring the parallel personal battlefield located in the hospital tents, in the sleeping quarters, in the spaces women habitually inhabit.
‘One of the things that is missing from The Iliad - because of the epic nature of the way in which the material is handled - is that there are very, very few wounded men who are going to survive. Yet every war, as far as we know, produces far more wounded men than corpses. They’re fighting on a plain which is criss-crossed by two great rivers and, in the end, the churning up of the ground would have produced a quagmire in which any man who was wounded would run the risk of getting infected. You would have gas gangrene developing in these wounds, in exactly the same way as you did in northern France. So I’ve got the hospital tent and the stink-hut - which everybody with gas gangrene goes into but nobody comes out of.’
Barker emphasises that the landscape she conjures is one full of contradiction; blending superstition with pragmatism and vivid, visceral detail. In Barker’s hands the Greek encampment becomes a strange masquerade, a simulacrum of home life overlaid with a miasma of fear, claustrophobia and barely-prevented decay.
‘It’s both rich and squalid’, Barker says. ‘It contains all the moveable goods like the tapestries, the gold plate and the marvellous carved chairs but they’re living in huts. It’s all very overcrowded and you have rats and then you have plague. It was very important to me to have this double element: the plague arrives because Agamemnon has angered the gods but you can also see in the camp they’ve been very lucky to avoid plague to this point because all the preconditions for plague are there.’
That The Silence of the Girls should feel so particularly and acutely moving is in part because it’s a novel with a striking - and at times surprising - relevance. Barker is quick to point out that, whilst she didn’t set out to write the novel in that way, she’s been struck herself by how much the story resonates with some of our most pressing and pertinent contemporary issues; particularly those of women’s agency and what it means, as a woman, to have a voice.
‘Obviously you don’t start writing a book set in the Bronze Age thinking, “well, this is going to be really topical”’, she observes wryly, ‘but at the copyediting stage it suddenly occurred to me, going through the book in minute detail and listening to the news, “hell, a lot of the same things are going on”. I think unconsciously I must have been aware of that throughout, although it certainly wasn’t in the forefront of my mind at all. There were slave markets held by Isis weekly and there were young girls being sold as sex slaves but even that removes it geographically. Then I read about illegal immigrants in London and other big cities who can’t work legally and have nowhere proper to sleep and if they are sexually assaulted – and they are regularly and habitually – they can’t go to the authorities. Those women are slaves within our own society. So, it’s not back in the past or comfortingly a couple of thousand miles away, it’s here and it’s now.’