Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 16, 2020

The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker

Lots of people like this book, and it was nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, but I found it dull.  Perhaps this might not be so for readers who don’t already know Homer’s Iliad, but I do, so I knew exactly what was going to happen because Barker’s plot so closely follows the original story from the 8th century BC.  Without the narrative tension of an unfamiliar plot the book needed other aspects to create reader engagement: it needed to be interesting because it offered the female perspective omitted from the original epic, and the writing needed to be vivid and captivating.  And IMO it is inadequate in both respects, and Barker’s ambition to redress historical gender inequity in an archaic piece of literature and link that to the contemporary #MeToo movement is not enough to redeem it.

Perhaps it’s not fair to compare Barker’s coarse and unlovely prose with the stunning poetry of Homer’s original.  But even in translation, (I most recently read the Fagles translation), The Iliad is suffused with striking images and powerful rhythms, and David Malouf in Ransom showed that a prose version can be beautiful as it tackles the tortuous redemption of Achilles and the journey of the enemy king towards full humanity.  Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles isn’t beautiful in the same way, but it explores the psychology of the protagonists in a popular version written for an audience unfamiliar with the original story.  To give Barker the benefit of the doubt, perhaps her crude style may have been deliberate: maybe she did not want to glorify the story in beautiful prose as her predecessors have done because her version of it is an ugly story.  As her character Briseis says on the last page, an audience doesn’t want to hear about

…the brutal reality of conquest and slavery.  They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls.  They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. (p.324)

But still, the shallowness of the writing is a disappointment because I have previously really liked Barker’s novels, ever since I read The Regeneration Trilogy. 

But the story written from the women’s perspective is a disappointment too.  The original epic is set during the Greek siege of Troy during the Trojan War,  and its focus is the conflict between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles, and the terrible inhumane consequences of their intemperate natures. But (as you’d expect in an any ancient epic) those inhumane consequences do not include mention of what some cultures now call ‘collateral damage.’  Pat Barker’s aim was to bring alive the fate of the women and girls who were captured and enslaved and raped.  Well, she does this, sometimes in revolting detail, so if a reader lacks the imagination to understand the fate of women as a consequence of military defeat in countless cultures and from ancient times to as recently as in Germany’s defeat in WW2 and in the Yugoslav wars (1991-2001), then The Silence of the Girls will supply the story.

But although Briseis narrates most of the story (except, awkwardly, the parts that she could not personally have witnessed) this novel is (inexplicably) still mostly focussed on the story of Achilles and his intemperate rage.  Everything Briseis thinks and says and does occurs in that context. It’s disappointing because if you have read any literature about people who were enslaved in the Holocaust, or imprisoned in Japanese POW camps or kept in grim circumstances for their ‘moral improvement’ in female factories and workhouses, you will know about the inner resources that people drew on in order to survive.  In captivity and enslavement, despite the horror and the dehumanising treatment and the physical exhaustion, people found ways to connect with and support each other; to sustain their own cultures, history, music and literature; to teach the children and each other; to use grim humour as a covert counter to their all-powerful captors; and to hope and plan for a different future.  But there is very little of this in The Silence of the Girls.  And apart from the final sequence where Briseis recognises that Achilles’ child that she is bearing will be part Trojan as well as Greek, there is little sense of the women as survivors.

Yes, that’s historically accurate, up to a point, because the Trojan culture was vanquished.  And yet there is a Troy museum in Turkey where you can see tear catchers, glass and terracotta perfume bottles, figurines, gold pieces, necklaces and bracelets, coins, ornaments, bone objects and tools, metal containers, terracotta potteries, weapons, axes and cutters, milestones, inscriptions, altars, sarcophagi, sculptures and many other special pieces from the area’s 5,000-year old history.  The Trojans and their culture were not obliterated.

In my disappointment about what this novel might have been, I found myself remembering Anna Lanyon’s Malinche’s Conquest, a book which explores the life of the woman given as a slave to Cortes in Mexico and how she survived by relying on her intelligence, her skill with languages and her courage.  And then there’s Elisabeth Storr’s Tales of Ancient Rome trilogy, which brings to life the Etruscan civilisation absorbed into Rome through the figure of Caecilia, a Roman noblewoman who is used to barter peace through a diplomatic marriage with the neighbouring Etruscans. She is not a slave, but noblewomen married off to secure alliances had very little freedom all the same.

It occurs to me that contemporary readers who haven’t learned anything about classical civilisations at school and come to The Silence of the Girls as newbies to the world of Ancient Greece, may well come away with the impression that the Greeks were brutish monsters.  Well, they were, just like all the cultures of the ancient world, and yes, just like all the others, they used women as possessions.  But they also bequeathed aspects of western civilisation that are still valued today. See this four part series at The Snarky Historian:

You might also get the impression that the Greeks paid no attention at all to the fate of the Trojan women.  Not so.  Euripides wrote a play about them in 415BC during the Peloponnesian War. 

There are numerous reviews to counter my lack of enthusiasm for this novel, but these two are representative:

Simon at Tredynas Days admired it too reviewed it here. 

Author: Pat Barker
Title: The Silence of the Girls
Cover art by Sarah Young
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK, 2018
ISBN: 9780241338094, pbk., 325 pages
Source: Personal library

Available from Fishpond: The Silence of the Girls: Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019

 


Responses

  1. Brilliant review Lisa. Thanks. Sara V

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  2. Interesting review, Lisa – very thoughtful and considered. I have to admit to not being a fan of these riffs or retellings of the classics in general, but I can see why they might appeal to some readers. The Barker sounds less successful than other examples of the genre, particularly the novels by Madeline Miller.

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    • I’m especially not a fan of rewriting the classics to suit some agenda, because only the finest of writers can keep the agenda under sufficient control.
      And when all’s said and done, if an author is outraged by the use of rape in war, (as everyone should be), why not write about what’s happening now and in the very recent past? What’s the point of fossicking about for issues from ancient history to get indignant about?

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  3. Thanks for the link to my post, Lisa. I wouldn’t say I admired it. I just reread it, and said I struggled to the end, ‘but can’t say I enjoyed it’. It was just too fierce and brutal for me, and I too found the narrative voice (I called it ‘laddish’; not sure if you use that idiom in Australia) jarring. Maybe I was more inclined to accept the woman’s pov in the well-known story, but ultimately I found it nasty. You express this response well. Btw, I’ve been out of blog action for a few weeks because of an unexpected work commitment with Mrs TD, but hope to post on Maupassant again soon, then the work resumes, so TDays will continue to be fairly inactive for a while to come. I’ll try to keep up with blogs like yours, though, even if I don’t get time to comment

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    • Sorry, yes, I did misrepresent what you’d written: I’ve amended the link.
      .

      So your retirement is not going to be quite as restful as you’d expected?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I didn’t really enjoy this one either. I found the women’s acceptance of their fate unremittingly depressing (probably realistic). I usually like Pat Barker very much, but this wasn’t for me.

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    • Your comment reminds me of that anonymous German journal about the way the Russians treated the women as they took control of the cities in WW2. You could see in that how at first they couldn’t believe what was happening, and they were shocked when even old women and young girls were raped. But within a comparatively short space of time, they adopted a pragmatic approach, finding themselves a ‘protector’ who would prevent further violence against them and help them to get food and shelter, and some friendships, however reluctant, did develop. Clearly those women had the same hatred of the enemy and the atrocities they were committing, but there was also some acknowledgement of a shared humanity, shared losses and a capacity to interact with them as individuals who were a long way from home rather than as representatives of the conquerors who deserved nothing but hatred. It seemed to be like the situation with French women who collaborated with the enemy in order to protect themselves and their children.
      So I think it’s a much more complex situation and people had more ambivalent attitudes than the way Barker presents it. After all, the Trojans would have done exactly the same thing if they had won, and the Trojan women knew it.

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  5. Lisa: no, retirement is supposed to be more relaxing than this! The lovely Mrs TD clearly thinks I need to exert myself more…

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    • I have found that there is no shortage of people who think I should exert myself too. But I think that I worked 60-70 hour weeks for four decades, rising at 6, and getting home twelve hours later always with more work to do at home and now I think I deserve to be as idle as I like:)

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  6. I had misgivings about this one too, although you articulate them much better than I did.

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  7. Our book group read this last year. Most found it prety average, all hated the violence . As for me I thought the sexual violence was battered into the ground too much. I get it. I don’t feel the need to have things spelled out to me. I like the tale but not so much as this was written. I am not attracted to rewrites of classics or “what if” as in the glut of books around Jane Austen and her books now. Just leave the classics alone and move on to new territory. Just my two cents and perfectly ok if people think differently. 🤠🐧

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    • You know, that’s exactly what I thought about Geraldine Brooks’ last one… I forget its name, but it was a biblical rewrite and it was so violent, I really disliked it. There’s enough violence in real life without having it as reading fare.

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  8. Thanks for this Lisa. I’ve never wanted to read this because I don’t need to read unremitting brutality. I know it was there, but I don’t think this kind of retelling really does anything to redress any kind of balance. And as you say, there is enough violence out there in the real world, and I don’t need to be reading it too.

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    • It seems a strange thing to say, but the more I think about this, the more I think it’s the silence about it that bothers her more than the violence. The violence is there to make us think about the silence.
      Stripped of its archaic circumstances, the real question is why don’t women speak up for themselves. The answer Barker seems to give is that it invites further violence if you don’t please the abuser and so you have two choices: take control of the situation and end your life (as some of the women do) or endure, and try to find compensations, which might include some kind of rapprochement with the abuser…

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  9. What a great review Lisa. I am always pleased that I can rely on your extensive reading and your deep understanding to put things into perspective.
    I agree with some of the comments about the retelling of classics and the ‘what if’ scenarios. It works here and there – most particularly, I think, in the rewriting of some of the fairy-tales but it does get a little tired and one starts to wonder if writers are simply running out of ideas. Luckily, we then then get to read so many stunning original works that our faith is restored.

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    • Well, you’re an author so you know better than I do, how the process works. Debra Adelaide in The Innocent Reader writes about how bit and pieces of life and people come together in a kind of alchemy and become an idea for a novel. I can’t help thinking that Barker was following the #MeToo movement and thought, oh, it’s just like it’s always been, even in the epics of Ancient Greece, men do this, women put up with it and nobody says anything about it.
      But conflating the behaviour of powerful 21st century men in the corporate world (as some reviewers do) with women being part of the spoils of war in the C8th doesn’t help much IMO. It’s ironic that I think a man has handled this topic much better: Elliot Perlman in Maybe the Horse Will Talk shows how even when there are legal tools for a woman to use, the corporate world is still a place where she’s vulnerable.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks for a terrific review, Lisa. I’m one of those people who haven’t read The Iliad – though I did read the Classic Comic when I was about 12, and I have read Alice Oswald’s ‘excavation’, Memorial. I liked the book a lot more than you did. I also thought Malinche’s Conquest when I was reading the last pages. The thought didn’t make me think less of Barker’s book, though, because it would be hard for anyone to equal the power of that book’s argument

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  11. I have been on the fence about this one, mainly because I’m not the biggest fan of ancient history. Might leave it on the maybe someday pile…

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  12. Hunh. Interesting. The comments and your review make me think about the other books by Pat Barker I’ve read, and how important the effects of violence are in other stories. And I think her first book also touched on domestic violence, and the choices women have/don’t have in that context, which might make for curious comparisons here. As I am not particularly familiar with the source texts, I would be one of the readers who has that curiosity to pull them through the novel: I do intend to read it, eventually, but I’m “behind” with Barker’s books and would likely mend the gap first. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading here!

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    • I just looked back over what I’ve read of her earlier work… Regeneration of course was about the effects of war, but I was interested to be reminded that Border Crossing was written from a male PoV, and I really didn’t like the Life Class series much, especially not Noonday which I found banal. That one put me off reading Toby’s Room which I have had on the TBR for ages now. OTOH I really liked Another World (also written from a male PoV) and Double Vision. But none of these predate Regeneration, so I’m not at all familiar with her early work. She’s one of those writers that make it easy to ‘fall behind’!

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  13. […] The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (British). Published by Hamish Hamilton Ltd, see my review […]

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