Thursday 23 May 2019

Feminist retelling of Homer's classic breaks the silence of Troy's women

Fiction: The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker Hamish Hamilton, hardback, 324 pages, €22

Captive audience: Trojan Queen Briseis is taken prisoner by the Greeks
Captive audience: Trojan Queen Briseis is taken prisoner by the Greeks
Silence of the Girls
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

'Silence becomes a woman," growls Ajax, fearsome Greek fighter during the Trojan War. What's shocking about this brutish, macho sentiment is that it's not contested, even by the women of this benighted era. Male dominance is accepted here as "just the way it is": will of the gods, the natural order of things.

Novelist Pat Barker - award-winning for her exploration of another, in some ways similar, type of corrosive masculinity in the Regeneration trilogy - now turns her attention to Homer's The Iliad.

At its root, The Silence of the Girls is a story about stories: their power; how necessary they seem to human psychology; the way they bestow a kind of immortality on both teller and subjects; and, most pertinently, how women have generally been denied the right to their story throughout history and especially in ancient times.

Homer's epic was heroic in all senses. Its genre was "heroic poetry"; its central characters were defined by great deeds of courage and camaraderie and battlefield derring-do. And all, of course, were heroes - in the sense that they weren't heroines.

In these myths, women are reduced to love-interests or plot-points, mothers, wives and sisters, whores and madonnas. They have little to do, we know virtually nothing about their inner lives, and they're tossed to and fro like driftwood by the tidal whims of men and destiny.

There's no point in critiquing Homer through the prism of modern sensibilities - these works merely express, neutrally, the mores of their time. Still: no harm, either, in taking this androcentric aesthetic and - in suitably violent fashion - flipping it on its head.

So Barker has retold The Iliad from the perspective of Briseis: a Trojan queen and a woman of wealth and privilege reduced to the status of a slave after the fall of her city, Lyrnessus, and given to Greek warrior Achilles as a trophy.

Briseis, as she bitterly thinks more than once, is no longer a person: now she's a thing, an "it", a possession to be valued, bartered, coveted, tossed aside. Again, her life and safety are dependent on equally capricious fate and man; even worse (there are worse things than dying, she quickly realises), her identity and humanity have been erased.

The Greeks call him "Great Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles". To Briseis and her fellow Trojans, he is simply "the butcher". Achilles is unparalleled at killing: she sees, with disgusted fascination, how smooth and elegant his movements are when slaughtering her brother.

Achilles is many things: angry, vicious, fiery, proud, remorseless. He's not, however, a cartoon villain, and Barker manages the tricky feat of creating a character who is complicated and human (partly human, anyway - his mother was a sea-goddess, after all) without shying away from the horror of his actions.

As the war drags on and Briseis is flung from one awful situation to something approaching bearable and back again, a strange sort of bond grows between them. She is proud herself, and she hates Achilles for what he did to her people and despises women who fall in love with their "owners"; yet she can see some redeeming qualities in him. And he, in return - no doubt hastened by the kindness shown her by Patroclus, his closest friend - eventually comes to respect Briseis as a woman, not a thing.

Barker is too wise and talented an author to just harangue the reader with feminist ideology. The book recognises, as does all proper art, the ambiguity of existence: even in the midst of gods and monsters, and men who are both at the same time.

Nonetheless, The Silence of the Girls will presumably be hailed as a clarion call for feminism. Comparisons will no doubt be drawn with #MeToo, rape culture, Donald Trump and so on.

But what strikes the reader, even more than misogyny and "in-group" racial hatred, is that old mantra of socialist activists: class is everything. Those with money and power, regardless of their sex, are fine. Nobody would even consider harming Briseis when she was a queen, or when she's Achilles' "girl".

On the other hand, "commoners" are basically cannon-fodder for the military chess-games being played by their betters. Slaves can be beaten to death by their owners for no reason and with no repercussions. All men and boys, down to small children, on the defeated side are exterminated as a matter of course: the gods didn't favour them, they no longer have power, they don't matter anymore.

This is an excellent novel, beautifully written in simple, crisp prose. Despite the supernatural elements dotted through the narrative, these mythical events are refashioned as earthy and corporeal, richly imagined, fully plausible.

The Silence of the Girls reminded me, unsurprisingly, of The Penelopiad - Margaret Atwood's similarly distaff reimagining of the related Odyssey. That was more droll, though, mannered and abstract, almost a surreal comedy.

Barker's book is sadder, more regretful; and more of this world, the record of people torn and broken. It's haunting, too, in an oblique and hard-to-define way: particularly in scenes where Achilles plunges into the sea in desperate search for the mother who returned to the waters when he was seven.

The mighty hero, regressing to the abandoned child, the godlike reverted to the human, the epic rescaled to the intimate, myth brought back to story, and, ultimately, Briseis' story returned to herself.

Indo Review

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top