The Silence of the Girls
(Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)
The Silence of the Girls
(Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)
Pat Barker’s version of the Iliad is retold from the perspective of a woman who catalyses the story in Homer’s original account of the Trojan War but then disappears. Briseis was a queen until her city was sacked by Greek warrior Achilles, but when she becomes his concubine – or sex slave, in the modern vernacular the Booker-winning novelist deploys so well here – she takes the eye of his commander and rival Agamemnon. Yorkshire-born Barker’s book is full of clarity, insight and wit.
Many of your previous novels are set during modern wartime. Why did you decide to go back to the source and the ancient Greece of Homer’s Iliad for The Silence of the Girls?
I happened to read The Human Stain by Philip Roth, a novel in which he has a character talk about Homer’s Iliad to a group of first year students. He tells them that all of European literature begins with a fight between two powerful men over the body of a young girl, a girl captured in a war. So I read the Iliad and found amazingly eloquent speeches by the men in question – Agamemnon and Achilles – but the girl they’re fighting over says nothing. That silence haunted me, so many years later I thought I would try to give that girl a voice and the result was The Silence of the Girls.
What drew you to telling the story through the point of view of Briseis, the 19-year-old queen of Lyrnessus?
One of the silent girls is called Briseis. When the story opens she is the queen of Lyrnessus. When Achilles sacks her city she sees her husband and brothers killed by Achilles and the following morning is awarded to him by the Greek army to be his “prize of honour”, his slave. She goes from queen to sex slave in 48 hours. It’s difficult to imagine a more dramatic reversal of fortune. That’s what makes her the ideal person to tell this story. The question for the writer and for the reader becomes: how can a woman survive this?
To what extent do you think Homer would have been aware that his retelling of the Trojan War, by leaving out female voices, was a partial history?
The relative absence of women’s voices from the Iliad would not have concerned its first audiences. Epic poetry was primarily concerned with the heroism of men on the battlefield.
As the voices of women and girls are absent from the Iliad, did you feel a sense of freedom in working out how they would speak in your story or was it frustrating to have so little to draw on?
Because the women are largely silent in the Iliad I was free to invent voices for them. But it was equally important to find contemporary voices for the men. It’s just not possible in contemporary fiction – or theatre, for that matter – to have characters delivering long, eloquent, uninterrupted speeches. The dialogue may strike some readers as jarringly modern. But this is deliberate. This is not history; this is the retelling of a myth. History is then; myth is now. I wanted these people to sound like out contemporaries.
Achilles, Agamemnon and the other battle leaders might have heroic status but they still have to get up, get washed and commute to work every day, in this case for nine years. Is the everyday grind of war something you were keen to depict?
The story is set in the ninth year of the war. The two armies have been fighting on the plain of Troy backwards and forwards over the same stretch of muddy ground for what feels like a lifetime, with neither side able to achieve a decisive breakthrough. This takes a heavy toll, especially on the Greeks who are separated from their families. The fighters stagger back to the camp at the end of the day exhausted, bad-tempered and ready for a drink – or ten.
You’re talking at Manchester Literature Festival* with Kamila Shamsie, whose book Home Fire is a retelling of Antigone. Why are modern writers continuing to be inspired by the classics?
Old people nearing the end of their lives typically think more often about their childhood and early youth, as if trying to pull the threads through and make sense of all the years between. I believe nations do something very similar. Certainly at the end of the 20th century there was a marked upsurge of interest in the early years of the century and, in particular, the First World War. So perhaps our current need to retell some of the first stories ever told comes from a sense of ending, or winding down? Or perhaps, in a time of rapid social and political change, people need the stability of stories that have stood the test of time? We are bombarded with so much fake news, so many stories that don’t last more than a few days or even hours. The Iliad is probably 2,500 years old, the legends it’s based on even older than that; and yet we can still go back to it and find something new and relevant to our own time.
Pat Barker’s talk with Kamila Shamsie is on 9 October. Big Issue North is media partner to MLF (manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk)
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