The Silence of the Girls—Pat Barker

[I read this 2018 novel in its three parts, and wrote about each part before reading on.]

14 January 2020
Part 1
In recent years a lot of writers have created their own versions of ancient myths. Many of them were published in the Canongate Myth Series and, as with Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, women writers have often taken stories of male heroism and reimagined them from a woman’s perspective. It can be seen as a deliberate recalibration of a millennia-old canon of patriarchal mythology—not that women were either absent or entirely powerless in those stories—in which surprising versions of events can be told by women who were often marginal or passive participants in the narratives of men’s lives.

Briseis is one of these women, a bit-part player in The Iliad. She, we come to realise in the first few pages, is the wife of the king of the small Trojan city-state which is being attacked by the Greeks as the novel opens. The Greeks have soon breached the walls, and are going about killing every man, and every boy old enough even to make an attempt to lift a fallen weapon. Achilles is leading the sacking of the city, ‘Great Achilles … Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles’ and so on, as she begins her account. Then, ‘We never called him any of those things. We called him “the butcher.”’ And we’re off and away into a no-holds-barred, Horrible Histories description of what it was like to witness his army’s style of butchery.

It’s all over in a few pages, every man in the city dead—sixty of them at Achilles’ own hands—which is when the looting begins and the women are rounded up from their hiding places. These operations are as efficient as the killing, so that soon nothing of value is left in the city, and neither are any of the women. Briseis herself has been selected as a prize for one of the Greek commanders. Barker, using a 21st Century idiom, never uses the phrase ‘trophy wife,’ because that isn’t what she and the other rich or good-looking women become. They are slaves, and they are as much the property of the Greek men as all the other looted goods. And, reader, she is the special prize of Achilles.

That’s the set-up. For the rest of Part 1 Briseis takes us through the weeks and months of being Achilles’ sex-slave. He isn’t cruel, but he treats her as what she is to him, a possession he can make use of. He makes use of her every night—she always describes sex as him simply being on top of her at the end of a day of fighting and commanding—and, basically, it’s dull. Like Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, Pat Barker gives us as plausible a version as she can of how a sensible woman would respond to her own powerlessness in a culture in which she has absolutely no rights over her own body. Perhaps it’s because I recently re-read Atwood’s novel that I’m not so impressed by Barker’s efforts. It’s believable enough, and so is the way the world of the enslaved women is presented. They behave like real women—sympathetic, jealous, bitchy—but then, so did Atwood’s Handmaids. It’s the least you would expect…

…and, to be fair, this isn’t all there is. Briseis has a self-questioning internal life exactly like what we would expect in our own century, too exactly for my taste. She is able to explain, for instance, how she can get over the trauma, but also why it’s so easy to lose track of days and weeks. She describes the Greek camp, across the plain from Troy itself, and its army-based routines. And as modern as her sensibility is the rugby-club laddishness of the soldiers. There’s locker-room banter, and their favourite mocking song to Achilles is ‘Why was he born so beautiful?’ which Barker would expect us to recognise as a 20th Century rugby or army song. But we also get to know, through the conversations Briseis has, about the friendships and rivalries amongst the commanding officers. A key talking-point is Achilles’ resentment of Agamemnon’s power, especially when all he does, according to Achilles, is look after the ships so he can stay away from the fighting.

Achilles himself has a very particular psychology, seeming to Briseis exactly like an overgrown baby. His needs, aside from sex, are all like those of a baby or, at best, an aggressive boy. And Briseis witnesses the way he always swims out to sea, hears him calling for ‘Mummy’—I don’t know what the word would have been in ancient Greek, and Barker’s use of the childish English form has to be deliberate. His mother is a sea-goddess, and he has never got over the loss of her. When Briseis, another fan of sea-swimming, comes to bed still smelling of it, Achilles is suddenly wildly interested in her. Of course, it isn’t her he’s fascinated by, but this female embodiment of his own obsession. This time he doesn’t just lie on top of her and do the minimum to satisfy his needs. He abandons himself in her, and it’s exhausting.

Is he a simple creature, or impossibly complex? Briseis is opting for the former. His lifelong friend and de facto brother, Patroclus, is far more sympathetic. He is the only man in the world who can calm Achilles’ tantrums and, after some time has passed, goes out of his way to talk to Briseis. Together with the snippets the women pick up, this is how she finds out about what’s going on among the men. And some things aren’t secret anyway, as when the father of Chryseis, Agamemnon’s prize sex-slave, arrives to plead for her return. The man is a priest of Apollo, and Agamemnon’s rude treatment of him, according to the current theology, is what leads to a catastrophic outbreak of plague. Briseis herself had been calling for vengeance from Apollo, ‘god of mice’, and she has noticed the rats that have infested the place. Not that she believes for a moment that it’s her own prayers that are answered. But when Calchas the seer announces that it’s the insult to Apollo that has brought the plague, Agamemnon is forced to send Chryseis back, with a ransom of 100 bulls.

The rivalry between Agamemnon and Achilles has come to a head over this. The way Barker presents it, as reported by Briseis, makes these heroes of Greek myth seem like overgrown boys spitting threats and insults at each other. Perhaps this is an oblique satire of 21st Century ‘strong man’ leaders like Putin and Trump. The diplomacy is not subtle, and I’m struck by the contrast between Barker’s presentation of the Greeks and Barry Unsworth’s in The Songs of the Kings. In writing about that novel, written fifteen years earlier, I commented on how it seemed to be based on the politics of its time. ‘The novel was written in 2003, when spin was in the air.’ A leading character in Unsworth’s novel is Odysseus, arch spin-doctor, and I suspect it’s no accident that he has very little to do in Barker’s. Strong-man leaders don’t feel the need for people like him.

In fact, Barker is presenting us with a world in which everything seems crude. The politics are crude, based only on power and fighting strength, and so are the sexual politics. Barker neatly brings these together—or Homer did, 3000 years ago—when a key bargaining-point between Agamemnon and Achilles becomes the matter of how the commander-in-chief can save face. He does it by demanding that Achilles give up Briseis, and Achilles’ response is as we would expect. At first he refuses, then threatens that if Agamemnon takes Briseis he, Achilles, will cease to fight. Everybody, including Patroclus as he talks to him later, thinks this is a terrible idea. What else can Achilles do but fight?

At the end of Part 1, Briseis is being taken to Agamemnon’s quarters. And I’m hoping that Parts 2 and 3 will offer something more unexpected. So far, I don’t think I’ve been surprised by a single thing—it’s as though Barker, using the ingredients she’s decided on, has done what she considers necessary to the best of her ability. A patriarchal, militaristic Bronze Age society would probably be like this, war would be carried out like this, women would be treated like this…. Yeh, OK. But I’m not stunned by the originality of it. We’ve kind of been here before.

21 January
Part 2
I’m still not. Riveted by it. Over maybe 110 pages, Barker takes us through the next stage. Achilles’ refusal to fight, the Trojans’ steady advance towards the Greek camp, the commanders’—and the men’s—increasing exasperation at Achilles’ stubbornness, the desperate plan to have Patroclus fight in Achilles’ armour, Achilles’ savage return to the field after Patroclus’ death at the hands of Hector and, after five days of his trademark butchery, his triumphant return with Hector’s smashed-up body being dragged behind his chariot.

110 pages seems a lot. It felt like a lot as I read it, Barker describing not only everything that happens to Briseis while she’s in Agamemnon’s possession but, in chapters in a different narrative voice, dealings amongst the men of the top brass that Briseis can know nothing about. This voice, even more 21st Century than the one Barker uses for Briseis, is that of an all-knowing third-person narrator—I suppose that by the time Barker reaches the part of the story in which military details start to become crucial, she realises Briseis can’t be the one to recount them. And how else can she, Pat Barker, offer insights into Achilles’ state of mind—and his ever more complicated relationship with Patroclus—when Briseis is in an entirely different part of the camp? Whatever, it immediately felt like a cop-out to me.

The first chapter of Part 2 is in this new voice, and it takes a moment for the reader to realise this is no longer Briseis telling us. ‘Ever since he came to Troy he’s known … that he won’t be going home. Not for him the joyful greetings, the embraces…’ and so on. Maybe, despite the almost casual informality, this is Barker letting us know that by removing a narrative layer—the point of view of a character who was never more than a pawn in The Iliad—she is bringing us closer to the original. Even more than Briseis’ narrative, this is a version of the old story nobody could fail to understand. Stephen Fry has recently published Heroes, stories based on a variety of Greek myths, and is apparently interested in having a go at The Iliad. I wonder if he’ll do what Barker does, imagining people with a thoroughly modern mindset dealing with 3000-year-old dilemmas. Almost certainly, I would think.

So, in Part 1 there are parallel narratives. Briseis occasionally figures in the main story, in a continuation of her role as chief pawn—except, she comes to realise, she isn’t even that any more. Her experiences in Part 2, whenever the men drag her out of the shadows where she’s content enough to do women’s work, are always humiliating. Agamemnon treats her with contempt, neatly encapsulated in what he does in their first private moment. He makes her open her mouth wide with her head back—and then he drops a big gobbet of spit into the back of her throat. And he only ever has sex ‘through the back gate,’ a phrase that’s typical in its knowing and rather unpleasant modernity. I this is Barker’s way of getting down with the kids, I wish she’d stop.

When Briseis is next brought into the main action, she’s part of a bribe to Achilles—Agamemnon’s advisers call it that—consisting of ‘a king’s ransom’ of gifts and Briseis herself. Achilles tells Odysseus and Ajax, acting as ambassadors, that Agamemnon can ‘fuck her till her back breaks’ for all he cares—thanks, Pat—and she isn’t even the icing on the cake anyway. Agamemnon’s daughter is, because Achilles can have if he returns to the battlefield and brings down Troy. He doesn’t care about her either.

By the time Agamemnon is prepared to give in to Achilles’ demand for a full apology, all talk of gifts and promises—and Briseis—seem irrelevant anyway. Nothing could stop Achilles returning to the fight, to avenge Patroclus’ death at the hands of Hector. He’s Priam’s son and the champion fighter of Troy, and Achilles had ordered Patroclus not to go anywhere near him on the battlefield. But, since we’re in one of those chapters in which the omniscient narrator takes us right inside the heads of these soldiers, we come to understand why Patroclus took no notice. Achilles, watching from one of the ships, is familiar with those moments in battle when ‘you know—not believe, not hope—know you can’t miss.… Nobody in that state could possibly stop and turn back.’ This is before Agamemnon’s big apology, which leads to an even more humiliating moment for Briseis—because it’s so public—than when Achilles refused her as part of the opening offer. This is in the arena and, as Briseis tells us at the end of it, ‘I brought up the rear, along with the seven girls from Lesbos, and all the other things.’

What’s interesting in Part 2 are the catastrophic pride of Achilles—Odysseus, Nestor, and even the far from eloquent Ajax keep reminding him how shameful it is to allow so many men to die in battle because of it—and Barker’s only partial success in combining this with the story of Briseis. Really, we’ve already got the point about Briseis by the end of Part 1, and there isn’t all that much more to learn about the way things work. By the time she tells us that she’s led away with ‘the other things’ we aren’t shocked at all. We’re not even vaguely surprised.

Which leaves what is the main storyline both in The Iliad and in Part 2 of this book. Not a great deal happens beyond what I’ve already covered, but Barker adds things to the mix like the field hospital—she has Briseis working there, preparing herbal draughts and poultices—and, much more crucially, Achilles in all his strangeness. Patroclus is part of that, is part of whatever it is that keeps Achilles together. The soldiers might make their jokes about Achilles’ ‘bum-boy’—it wouldn’t be a Pat Barker novel without that sort of sleazy cynicism—but, in this presentation of him, he’s an adviser, brother, a true soulmate. His death is a catastrophe for Achilles, and all he is sure of is that his own death will quickly follow. It’s been prophesied, and we don’t need to have read The Iliad to guess how things are going to turn out….

But there’s somebody else in Achilles’ life, and that’s Thetis, his mother. She doesn’t need to be called in Achilles’ moment of crisis, and we see more closely than ever why he has never been able to grow emotionally beyond the needs of childhood. She won’t let him—but Barker (not Briseis in this chapter) is keen for us to understand that this is no more than an overwrought, godlike version of mother-love: ‘what sort of mother starts to grieve at the moment of her son’s birth?’ asks our narrator, but then reminds us that she has always hated the fact that he will die. That’s one of the problems with being a god…. But there are good things too, like her access to makers of armour that will fit so well it is like wearing clothes, and will let him carve a path all the way to Hector.

Which is what he does. It’s Briseis who begins a list—which she has no intention of completing—not only of the Trojans he kills but the manner of their individual deaths. A name, followed by a graphic description of the awful things done to him by Achilles’ sword, spear or both. We can easily imagine how he killed sixty on that one day of butchery in her own city, and now she tells us this slaughter goes on for five days solid. She is always reminding us that she is a Trojan, describes in one passage how, in the future time she is writing from, individual upper-class ladies she knew are now servants and laundry-maids. These are her people, and Achilles… what? She called him a butcher in the first lines of the novel, and she’s been thinking about her own future in his ownership. In the arena, grudgingly accepting Briseis and the other ‘things’ from Agamemnon, he had mused on how it would have been better if she had died with her husband. ‘“How much grief and suffering the Greeks would have been spared. How many brave men, now dead, would still be alive.” He was blaming me for Patroclus. That’s when I knew there was no hope.’

Anything else? Like, Barker’s easy acceptance of the supernatural, such as Achilles hearing Patroclus’ call from the battlefield, and Patroclus hearing Achilles? Such as the magical end of the plague in Part 1, and the arrival of Thetis to comfort her son in Part 2? These people might talk like you and me, might even think like you and me most of the time, but, erm, not in this respect.

Time to read on.

23 January
Part 3—to the end
The supernatural aspect I was mentioning is another unresolved problem for me, to go alongside the awkward parallel narratives. Just as, by opting for that particular compromise solution—Barker seems not to have been able to come up with an alternative that would have kept Briseis firmly at the centre of the story—she has gone for a fudge regarding the gods too. In The Iliad the gods are central, constantly interfering with the human action so that no mortal beings are fully in charge of their own destinies. This is definitely not the case in The Silence of the Girls. 21st Century writer that she is, Barker makes it an incontrovertible fact that it is Achilles’ pride, and nothing else, that leads to the tragedy of Patroclus’s death. There are supernatural events, but that plague in Part 1 could easily be explained as deriving from natural causes, and there is no need at all for Thetis to be presented as Achilles’ real, immortal, sea-loving mother. I don’t understand why Barker brings in the gods at all, if she isn’t going to present the reader with characters who have an entirely un-modern, god-centred mindset. Or, alternatively, why she doesn’t go wholeheartedly for a universe in which the gods really are fully participating players.

Instead, it’s that fudge. The plague comes in Part 1, but it seems to be no mystery to Briseis. She prayed for it, yes, but has no faith in her own prayers—she is explicit about this—and is well-versed enough in decidedly post-Bronze Age scientific theory to understand that it’s the rats who bring it with them. We might not wonder why Agamemnon bothers with his sacrifice, but we wonder why Barker reports its apparent success with little or no further comment. It was Apollo’s anger, apparently. Maybe. Later, there are those miraculous calls to one another that Achilles and Patroclus hear near the moment of Patroclus’ death. No 21st Century gloss, just a re-telling of what was perfectly acceptable in the Iliad universe.

And then there’s Thetis. I think my problem with Barker’s presentation of her is the way she seems to be no more than Achilles’ hallucination for a long time, and this would fit with the modern psychological interpretation Barker usually opts for. His Oedipus complex, deriving from when his mother left him alone with his father before Achilles was seven, goes a long way towards explaining that night of passionate sex when he smells the sea on Briseis. But no. In Part 3, Thetis appears as fully-formed, and as acceptable to all the onlookers, as if this were a not uncommon occurrence. It seems perfectly acceptable that she has come onshore to help her son through the crisis of Patroclus’ death. Barker only nods in the direction of a psychological explanation, as Achilles comes to understand that the misery of the loss of his friend and soul-mate ‘outweighs’—Barker’s word—the misery of the loss of his mother. But that gets lost in her Iliad-like intervention: she presents Achilles with the best armour ever made, to ensure Patroclus’ death will be avenged.

In Achilles’ memories of Thetis when he was a child, pining for the sea and suffering cracks in her skin when deprived of it too long, we are even more firmly in the Iliad universe than with the supernatural calls Achilles and Patroclus hear. Barker is taking us in that direction… and then she doesn’t. There’s one more supernatural event, or two connected events, and she’s finished with them for good. Priam, the aging king of Troy, is able to pass all security checks unmolested in order to plead with Achilles for the return of Hector’s body. Barker is much more interested in the psychology of Achilles’ response, in order to explain his acceptance of this enemy in his private rooms, than in how Priam got there. And when Achilles is able to show Priam not a shapeless mass of bones and guts but Hector looking as though he is merely asleep, it’s simply presented as a given. Every day, Achilles has been dragging the body around and, every day, it has been restored—while the wounds he had inflicted on Hector become, briefly, visible on his own face. Go figure. Barker does nothing with these miracles, because she never seems to be comfortable fully engaging with them. She’s always quick to move on to the next episode, so she can get on with the interesting psychological stuff.

And we’re back to the parallel narratives. More than ever, Briseis strikes me as that mainstay of a particular kind of historical novel, the strong-willed modern woman somehow parachuted into a different time. She, a complete non-person in Bronze Age Greek culture, is feisty enough to make sure she gets Priam on his own, asks him—a man who remembers her from the occasional visits she made to his palace as a child—if he will take her back to Troy for a final few happy days before the city’s inevitable fall. He is appalled, not that this cipher has dared to asked for anything at all, but because it would be construed as a gross abuse of Achilles’ hospitality. She can see what he means—yet still smuggles herself on to his cart as it prepares to leave, lying next to the corpse of Hector that she has helped to clean and prepare. Achilles had helped her, because… why, exactly? Is it only because he wants to honour his guest while keeping everything secret? Or is it because he’s finally growing into the adult he’s never been, capable of actual relationships? On subsequent nights, he’s even able to make love to her with something like real interest.

There are more nights with Achilles because she leaves the cart after she realises that otherwise she would be choosing a life of truly abject servitude after her inevitable recapture in Troy. Life with Achilles isn’t all that bad, once you get to know him. Except, this being Ancient Greece, once battle is to recommence after the eleven days of ceasefire he’s agreed to, to accommodate proper funeral commemorations for Hector, he tells her she is going to marry Alcimus, one of his sidekicks. She’s pregnant, and Achilles says it’s his way of making sure she’ll be looked after. To be honest, she can see what he means.

I’ve nearly had enough now. I don’t know what more can be said about Briseis, struggling in as plausible way as Barker can make it to retain her dignity and her (very modern-seeming) sense of herself against these odds. But I’ve come to realise that the constant presence of the parallel story saps the strength out of what was supposed to be the main one. Maybe Barker set herself an impossible task, which might explain why the novel seemed to lose its way long before this final part. Barker wants to give the women a voice, whilst never even attempting to tell a version in which the male experience, that of Achilles and the other men, was not at the centre of it.

She could have done it. If a writer tries hard enough, marginal characters can live their own lives in their own limited sphere of experience, while affairs of state take place somewhere else. Tom Stoppard did this brilliantly in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. He doesn’t attempt to re-tell the story of Hamlet’s tragedy, because this isn’t about him. To a degree, Part 1 of The Silence of the Girls is like that. Great events take place far away and, like Stoppard’s hapless pair, Briseis only gets a glimpse of what’s going on almost by accident. When that opening chapter of Part 2 takes us right into the masculine world of Achilles, it feels almost like a betrayal. This, we’ve been led to believe, isn’t his story, but that of Briseis and the other women—then suddenly, in this chapter and all the others like it in Parts 2 and 3, Briseis is firmly back where she’s always been, on the sidelines. To me, it feels like a failure.

Maybe Achilles is just too interesting, like Satan in Paradise Lost. His complex, tortured psychology presents an author with too much to ignore. His almost childish neediness in Part 1 evolves, so that by the time he is beginning to come through his grief for Patroclus he’s becoming much more of a rounded human being. There’s something approaching real growth—which we don’t really see in Briseis. She comes through one damned experience after another—the final trial for her is escorting a Trojan girl she remembers to be sacrificed—and, rather than character-building, it feels episodic. She might console herself, a few chapters from the end, that the children of these Greek soldiers will always remember the songs of Trojan women, their mothers… but this is never going to be enough. A chapter or two further on—we’re really not far from the end when it comes—we understand how, for all the defiant hopes of Briseis and the other women, all they really have is the silence that gives this book its title. That girl, Polyxena, is gagged before her throat is cut. Before this, it had been Achilles who picked up his lyre in the final days of his life, and was able to finish his song. The women, despite Briseis’ unspoken plea that ‘We need another song,’ never get their own.

Speaking of songs, I remember another author who gave a voice to another group ignored by the stories. In The Long Song, Angela Levy gives a Caribbean slave a chance to tell her version of events—and the white characters in that novel are at least as bad as the self-regarding men in this one. Levy’s book is easily the more successful of the two. Maybe it’s because nobody has celebrated slavery for a very long time, so any reader is going to be open to a character spilling the beans on the white characters’ atrocities. The Iliad isn’t like that. There can be new versions and re-imaginings, but Barker hasn’t been able to stop herself coming back to the men’s story. Her failure is that in this version, it’s still more interesting than the women’s. For Briseis and the others, sailing to Greece to serve their new masters, there is no new song. ‘Now,’ she tells us in the final line, ‘my own story can begin.’ I’m not at all convinced.