by Pat Barker
“How was it possible for these high walls that had protected us all our lives to fall?”
Having come straight from reading The Beekeeper of Sinjar, a collection of harrowing first-hand accounts of women taken captive by Daesh, to The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker’s reimagining of the legendary Trojan War from a female perspective, it was disconcertingly effortless to step from 21st century Iraq to 13th century BCE Greece. So little, it seems, has altered in parts of the world during the intervening millennia.
Barker is a multi award-winning British novelist – most memorably carrying off the Booker prize in 1995 for The Ghost Road, her final title in the remarkable Regeneration trilogy. She has been high on my list of favourite authors since her 1982 debut, Union Street, in which she told seven interwoven tales of working class women from the north of England whose lives had been circumscribed by deprivation and violence. Inevitably my expectations were high upon receiving a pre-publication copy of her first novel since the release of Noonday in 2015 (the final book in her most recent series). I’m relieved to report that I was far from disappointed.
Known for writing on themes of war, trauma, survival and recovery, it was perhaps unsurprising that Barker should choose to rewrite an ancient Greek epic (the Iliad, in this instance) from the point of view of the beautiful and clever Briseis of Lyrnessus, the mythical wife of Mynes, king of the Cilicians, who was captured during the siege of her homeland. Briseis’s father, mother and brothers were all slaughtered during the invasion, after which she was given to the great warrior Achilles as a prize for his prowess in battle, to be his sex slave.
Like Homer, Barker depicts Briseis as a valuable possession, but one who becomes a pawn in a quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, the brutal king of Mycenae, in the final year of the war. The latter angers Apollo by capturing Chryseis, the daughter of one of his priests. In revenge, the young god unleashes a plague on the Achaean Army, which can only be dispelled by returning the girl to her father. Agamemnon eventually agrees to do so, though with great reluctance, but immediately secures face-saving compensation by taking Briseis from Achilles, causing the conquering hero to withdraw from battle. She is eventually returned to him following the death of his closest friend Patroclus, when he returns to the battlefront and slays the Trojan hero Hector outside the gates of Troy – but by this time innumerable Greek lives have been lost.
The death of Achilles is not presented in the Iliad, but it is said that he was killed by Paris with an arrow to the heel, and his ashes buried in the same urn as Patroclus. Nothing is known of what happened to Briseis following his death, but it is likely she became the slave of another Greek warrior.
In Barker’s hands, the blue-eyed, golden-haired slave is a powerless but calmly unflinching observer of events: a voice for women silenced by history. She learns to adapt and survive but endures a great many humiliations from Achilles and other male characters who regard the female sex as mere chattels, useful only to satisfy their needs.
It is quite some time since I last found myself so utterly immersed in a historical novel. Pat Barker is unquestionably on form with this retelling of the most famous conflict in literature. She has produced a truly magnificent piece of writing.
Many thanks to Hamish Hamilton for providing an advance review copy of this title.