“With no real part to play”: Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls

silenceLooking back, it seemed to me I’d been trying to escape not just from the camp, but from Achilles’ story; and I’d failed. Because, make no mistake, this was his story—his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter. Here I was, again, waiting for Achilles to decide when it was time for bed, still trapped, still stuck inside his story, and yet with no real part to play in it.

First of all, a confession: I have not read the Iliad. I do have it, and I dipped into it both before and during my reading of The Silence of the Girls. It looks awful: all violence and testosterone and posturing. I’m sure that’s not true, or not fair, or not entirely true or fair, but still I don’t expect I will dig in and read it properly any time soon. Just flipping through it, though, however inadequate otherwise, did help orient me better in what Barker was doing and why. Paradoxically, perhaps, it also increased my sense of dissatisfaction with her novel, because while The Silence of the Girls is billed as an alternative version of Homer’s epic, I thought it was still very much Achilles’ story. Yes, a lot of it is from Briseis’s point of view, in her voice, but nonetheless she seemed very much a cipher, a blank: she never came to life for me as a character but felt all the way through like a device.

That’s not to say I didn’t find the novel gripping: I did, though at times my faith in it was shaken by Barker’s deliberate choice to write the dialogue in an insistently contemporary idiom. I don’t necessarily object to that, and one thing that technique accomplishes, besides avoiding the “faux Homeric epic archaism” trap, is that it makes the scenes and contexts recognizable. More, it pushes that sense of familiarity to the point that the novel potentially doesn’t have to be about the Trojan wars at all but is about all war, any war, every war. Even with all the details about spears and chariots, I sometimes almost forgot, reading the battle scenes, just how remote from us this particular irruption of bloody horrors was supposed to be. The same sleight of hand also lets the book be about Briseis and the other traumatized and abused women of Troy and about women today and always who suffer in similar ways.

barkerCollapsing the distance between “us” and “them” in that way did sit a bit uncomfortably, I thought, with the less easily domesticated aspects of the story: you can’t really have both modern warfare and parents who are gods and goddesses. Are these ancient people just like us or radically different? Both, I guess is the answer, and maybe it’s the right one, but I found the result uneven. I wonder if my inability to quite believe in Briseis arises from a related problem: she is at once of that world and of ours. She seemed a bit too deliberately conceived as a way to push back, to write back, against her role and treatment in the Iliad. “I shall take the fair-cheeked Briseis, your prize,” says Agamemnon in my Lattimore translation, “I myself going to your shelter, that you may learn well how much greater I am than you.” Barker’s starting point is this dehumanizing treatment of women as “prizes,” but (and again I can only speak as someone who is not at all intimately familiar with the Iliad) she didn’t seem to me to go very far with that pretty obvious point: she doesn’t build Briseis into a character who can dominate the novel (which would mean dominating Achilles, not in act, of course, but in perspective and significance and charisma qua character). We are told Briseis comes to love Patroclus, but we do have to be told: I didn’t think we were every brought to feel it deeply. We feel Achilles’ love for Patroclus much more vividly, and it’s their love that has extraordinary consequences.

What about Briseis’s feelings for Achilles, or his for hers? This seems like fruitful territory but again, Barker doesn’t go very deep into it. Looking at the glancing references I could find in Homer (“even as I now loved this one from my heart, though it was my spear that won her”), there seems like room for a version of their relationship that makes much, much more of it than Barker does.

iliadWhat we get instead are comments that seemed both anachronistic and  perfunctory, about women as sacrifices and victims of male violence, about men’s inability to see the women they have enslaved as people, about her desire to free herself from his story to tell hers. And the thing is, not only is a lot of The Silence of the Girls itself still largely his story, but his parts in it were by and large the most interesting parts. Why, if what she wanted was to displace Achilles as the protagonist, did Barker give him so much space? Also (and these are just a few more quibbles) who is Briseis supposedly talking to? And why are some parts in the present tense?

Sometimes as I write up something I’ve read here, I find my admiration for it growing. The opposite seems to be happening here! I don’t want to misrepresent my reading experience, which overall was pretty good. Maybe if I did know the Iliad I would have picked up on thematic layers that complicate what to me felt, in the end, like a somewhat superficial exercise. Maybe the things I wanted from the novel would have meant too much deviation from its origins. Maybe the next book in the series is the one where Briseis really comes into her own; after all, this one ends “Now, my own story can begin.”