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.
It is really interesting how the likes of Alice Oswald and Pat Barker are finding new ways to paint Greek myths these days- what a superb review. I found Union Street a bit of a grim read in terms of its content- perhaps imaginative writing about ancient historical narratives is easier to process because of the distancing effect of time?
Many thanks, John. Yes indeed, Union Street was ‘grim’ but so well written. I know what you mean about the distancing effects of ancient narratives – I found Barker’s novel far less distressing than the Beekeeper of Sinjar, although they covered similar terrain.
Wow… this sounds impressive!
I thoroughly enjoyed this one, Emily!
I found it on Audible for pre-order, to be released on 9/4. So excited. Makes me want to revisit The Iliad too. Been too long.
I would love to know what you think of the Audible version. Gosh, it’s yonks since I read the Iliad. Like you, I feel it’s about time for a reread.
Seems like a good excuse to me. 🙂
Picking up on cheepcheepcopy’s comment. I wonder what’s sparked the recent trend for retelling Greek myths. Both Kamila Shamsie and Colm Tóibin have tried their hands at it, too.
Mmm, I wonder? Perhaps it’s something to do with looking back during difficult times. History does appear to repeat itself, but as a species we seldom seem to learn. However, it could merely be that authors are running out of fresh ideas! 😉
I had the same question! Madeleine Miller has been at it too…
They certainly do seem to be breeding!
And Natalie Haynes
There is absolutely no way I can pass a book like this up. You know I was waiting for your thoughts on this one, Paula, and I am not disappointed. What a treasure of a review!
Thank you, Jennifer. I certainly enjoyed this book – hope you do, too!
This seems to be a very different type of novel for Pat Barker. I have read her two War trilogies and a couple of others, and I have Union Street tbr.
Yes, this is a decidedly new direction for Pat Barker, be it still a ‘war novel’ of sorts. I feel she’s pulled it off, though. Hope others agree.
Great post! Sounds like an interesting read 🙂
Thank you, Eleanor. I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read!
Greek myth retellings have been unbelievably popular last years!!
I’ve invested a good sum to a special edition of this book from Goldsboro books and hoping it’ll be on Womens Prize list next year. fingers crossed.
That sounds exciting, Ova. Will you put a picture on your blog? I’ll keep my fingers crossed, too!
I love Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ trilogy and Greek myths, so I’m excited for ‘The Silence of the Girls’, even more so after reading your review! (although I think I might reread the Iliad first, as it’s been far too long…)
Thanks Izzy. Yes, the Regeneration trilogy is one of my all time favourites, So pleased my review persuaded you to read The Silence of the Girls – hope you find it a good read. I too need to reread the Iliad, it’s been far too long!
I adored the Regeneration trilogy but I’ve not read Pat Barker for ages – this sounds like a good place to get back to her!
Thanks for your comment, Madame B. I enjoyed her recent First and Second World Wars trilogy but it could never compete with Regeneration (though, I thought it particularly good on the London Blitz). I’m so glad she’s decided to head off in a completely different direction this time. I hope others are equally impressed – I found myself completely absorbed in The Silence of the Girls.
Oh! This sounds like a book that’s right up my street. I only read the Odyssey for the first time this year, and that combined with Women and Power by Mary Beard has really sparked my interest in Classics. I love the idea of retelling this from a women’s perspective.
I very much enjoyed this one, Kathy. Hope you do too!
Got my copy of this and looking forward to the read. I suspect there’s been a splurge after things like ‘Song of Achilles’ did so well. Not complaining, I do like my myths 🙂
I very much enjoyed this one. Love Pat Barker’s work. Happy reading!