The Silence of the Girls
by Pat Barker
Booker Prize-winning novelist Pat Barker, author of the enormously popular “Regeneration” trilogy set during the First World War, sticks with a martial theme but turns her focus from history to myth in her latest book, The Silence of the Girls. The muddy fields of France are swapped out for the windy plain of Troy.
The author’s narrative focus on the quieter, non-battlefield casualties of warfare carries over from that famous trilogy, and this approach encounters a whole new array of obstacles when it comes to Homeric pastiche fiction. As its title indicates, The Silence of the Girls centers, or at least tries to center, on Briseis, a young queen of one of Troy’s satellite kingdoms who’s captured when Achilles and his men sack her city. She thus becomes the property of the greatest of the warriors assembled to assault Troy, until, as a result of the notorious quarrel that starts Homer’s Iliad, she becomes the property of loutish Agamemnon, the High King of the Greek forces. When things begin to go poorly for his side, Agamemnon offers to return Briseis to Achilles, but Achilles refuses and in any case Homer has bigger fish to fry: he all but forgets about Briseis.
As even so brief a summary makes abundantly clear, it’s not possible to write a satisfying historical novel about Briseis along conventional lines, and Barker is a conventional novelist. Colette might have done it, but only by completely ignoring the Trojan War itself. This isn’t a path open to Barker; she’s clearly as darkly fascinated with war as she is with the personal and psychological prices it exacts.
But despite being the crux of one of its signature episodes, Briseis the character knows nothing of the war. Her experiences after the sack of her city consist entirely of sexual assault and Stockholm Syndrome, plus some light housekeeping. A line from late in Barker’s novel inadvertently sums up a slave’s experience of the greatest epic of Western literature: “All that long day I’d sat on the bench grinding herbs while the sound of battle, clamorous at first, moved steadily further away until, by mid-afternoon, it was no more than a muffled clash on the horizon.”
Barker is an old hand at historical fiction; five minutes into her first draft, she must have known what a novel built on herb-grinding would have looked like. She wisely avoids it, and so large chunks of the second half of The Silence of the Girls dispense with Briseis altogether and instead dramatize key moments from the Iliad, or else embroider those moments with modern novelistic trappings, complete with dialogue lifted unaltered from contemporary British fiction, as when wily old Nestor convinces Achilles’ close friend and lieutenant Patroclus (the hero of Madeline Miller’s far more adventurous Homeric venture, The Song of Achilles) to request permission to lead the sequestered Myrmidons into battle:
Patroclus drew a hand down across his eyes. When he looked up again, he found Nestor watching him, his expression not calculating or manipulative now - simply curious.
“Don’t you ever want to get out of his shadow?”
“I grew up in his shadow, I’m used to it.”
“But that’s not really an answer, is it?”
“This could be your chance to -”
“No. No, stop right there. If I do this, I’m doing it for him.”
A long silence. Only Nestor’s arthritic fingers twisting together betrayed his tensions. Finally, Patroclus said: “All right, you win, I’ll suggest it. I can’t promise more than that. And now I really ought to be getting back.”
Barely able to disguise his triumph, Nestor accompanied him to the door. “Oh, just one more thing,” he said. “Ask him to lend you his armor.”
“What? Now I know you’re mad.”
“If they see him on the battlefield - or think they see him - it’s worth a thousand men.”
Nestor stood back, watching the possibilities like maggots under the young man’s skin. He’d said enough. “Well, do your best.” He rested his hand briefly on Patroclus’s shoulder. “Nobody can do more.”
The tone and interiority here, so jarringly, self-confidently alien to anything in Homer, carries throughout Barker’s version of events. Even at the end of the book, reserve and sublimation are still maddeningly omnipresent. In the ninth year of the war, in an atmosphere that combines tedium with surrounding violence (“we seemed to be living in the hollow of a breaking wave”), the return of Briseis as a narrator likewise signals the return of a kind of stasis found nowhere in Homer. Less than 20 pages from the end of a novel about the Trojan War, our main character is still telling us, “So I sat by the fire and sipped my wine, and said nothing.”
In myth, Briseis spends her brief time as a war-prize of first Achilles and then Agamemnon and then, once both those billets become untenable, some more-or-less anonymous Greek soldier. She never returns to her old kingdom, and she never rules a new one, and she’s never again free, and no reader is ever expected to care about her fate; her story falls into silence. Barker’s attempt here to give voice to that silence can’t work with Homer but can’t work without him either. The result is dutiful but not moving, a marble frieze of something that’s meant to be pulsing with blood.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.