Well, it’s been a while! Over six months since my last post, in fact. I kind of underestimated how much time certain changes in my working life might consume. And to be honest much of my reading has also been work related – I think the ship’s probably sailed for reviews of Paradise Lost. So all in all, while 2019 was a productive year it wasn’t all that successful so far as reviewing was concerned – not to mention my own creative writing.
On that front, I’ve been struggling with the final chapter of my latest novel – The Fresco and the Fountain – for what seems like months. However, I can say that it would take sudden death/apocalypse/loss of limb/act of God to stop me from publishing it this year. So expect preview material from that soon.
On to the review, then. As my last post on here concerned Madeleine Miller’s beautiful Odyssey rewrite Circe, I thought I’d pick up where I left off by examining another mythic rewrite – Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls.
It’s not generally the case that I feel the need to read one book in order to prepare for reading the next. But I felt that I perhaps wouldn’t understand where Barker was coming from if I hadn’t first taken a look at The Iliad. Obviously, it’s not necessary to do this as The Silence of the Girls is very much its own story. But it does become apparent, having read that first great instalment in the history of European literature, that every narrative breeds new stories. Reading the Iliad, one can’t fail to wonder about all those characters who don’t get a voice – who only come alive in order to fall victim to Achilles’ sword, or to be enslaved by the Greeks. And so this is how Barker, like Miller, approaches the issue of myth. The unsung, repressed or forgotten – those elements of minor narrative obscured by the major narrative – suddenly take centre stage.
If I were being flippant, I’d suggest a good subtitle for Barker’s novel might be “…or how toxic masculinity has always f*cked things up for women.” But that would be doing a massive disservice to this very complex book. Yes, Achilles is initially regarded by Briseis (the book’s chief narrator) as a monster – a man who has slaughtered her brothers and husband and who regards her as mere spoils of war. But then Achilles is, as Briseis comes to realise, far more of a liminal figure than he initially appears: a man trapped by his own legend as the ultimate warrior, who never quite fits into the testosterone-saturated world of the Greek camp. And in that respect, such liminality is also evident in the Iliad itself – in Achilles’ all-consuming passion for Patroclus, and his childish penchant for a good sulk “…furious (690) over fair-cheeked Briseis, the girl he had won from Lyrnessus by the sweat of his brow when he sacked Lyrnessus itself…” (The Iliad Penguin loc. 1794).
Paradoxically, the Briseis of Barker’s novel attains a form of autonomy through acknowledging herself a slave: “A slave isn’t a person who’s being treated as a thing. A slave is a thing, as much in her own estimation as in anybody else’s.” (38) While the Briseis of the Iliad is never fully heard, here she articulates her situation at every turn: no longer a status symbol to be passed between Agamemnon and Achilles. And if The Silence of the Girls says anything, it is of how women’s bodies are constantly appropriated to serve a purpose – be it Agamemnon’s justification for war in the figure of Helen, or Briseis as symbol of rivalry amongst the leaders of the Greek army. As she asserts: “Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men. In Achilles’ compound, the message had been: Look at her. My prize awarded by the army, proof that I am what I’ve always claimed to be: the greatest of the Greeks. Here, in Agamemnon’s compound, it was: Look at her, Achilles’ prize. I took her away from him just as I can take your prize away from you. I can take everything you have.” (120)
The Silence of the Girls is a novel which is not trying to right any historical (or mythic) wrongs. Effectively, it is a meditation on the way in which people’s lives are used to tell a story in a given way. The Iliad, it turns out, is not just about the destruction of Troy. It is more than Hector defending the city’s gates; Priam’s grief or Agamemnon’s wrath. It is an infinite number of other tales waiting to be told.