Even if Pat Barker’s book isn’t a great one, it is perhaps a necessary one.
Remember Briseis? Probably not. If you have not read the Iliad you’ll almost certainly never have heard of her. Even if you have read the Iliad you’ll quite probably have forgotten who she is. Briseis is not in the premier league of Homeric heroes: not an Achilles, a Hector, an Ajax or even a Helen. Even Homer barely bothers with Briseis: she gets a mere ten mentions in the poem’s 15,693 lines – and each one a glancing blow.
Now Pat Barker has written an entire novel about her. It’s called – with due ominousness and hint of slaughter – The Silence of the Girls. This, that title whispers, is not going to be an epic in the glorifying war sort of vein. Sure enough it is not. In its opening paragraph the tone is set. “Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.”
This book is a brilliant idea. The Trojan War was begun over a woman but, as Barker’s title makes clear, you almost never hear from her sex – and when you do it’s in the context of men. Helen is Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships, not Helen, who was wonderful at telling jokes. Women almost always appear next to a possessive genitive: Helen, Menelaus’s wife; Andromache, Hector’s wife. The word Briseis is a genitive of the most fundamental kind: it means daughter of Briseus. Her other name, rarely used, was Hippodamia.
But Briseis matters. If it is Helen who causes the Trojan War, it is Briseis who causes the events of the Iliad. As the novel opens, the Trojan War is almost a bloody decade old. Nothing much has changed. Then Lyrnessus, a local city, is sacked. This is the city in which Briseis is royalty – or is until Achilles arrives. She and the other aristocratic women sit crammed in a room in the citadel: “Within a few hours, the smells of sweaty bodies, of milk, baby shit and menstrual blood, had become almost unbearable.”
Not as unbearable as what is coming. Briseis watches as Achilles hacks his way through their men; guts spilling and mouths gaping “like scarlet flowers”. A moment later he is at her brother, then her brother is on the ground, “wriggling like a stuck pig”. Not much later, Briseis herself has been taken into Achilles’s bed: “I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”
The plot thereafter is instantly recognisable if you’ve read the Iliad, and as confusing as the quarrelling of Syrian factions if you haven’t (doubtless in the tents of Islamic State fighters such self-glorifying poems are, even now, being written).
For various reasons, Agamemnon has to return his “prize” (ie a woman, Chryseis) and so takes Achilles’s “prize” (ie Briseis) in return. So Achilles refuses to fight; so Patroclus is killed; so Hector is killed; so Achilles is killed… And so on.
The Silence of the Girls is a brilliant idea. It is not, however, a brilliant book. It is enjoyably readable, and it has great moments – Barker has a fine eye for the concrete detail. Achilles struggles to get the blood out of his cuticles; a man toils between Briseis’s thin thighs like “a carthorse in the shafts”; the flesh of a killed man is “white and dense as dead cod”. There is a wonderful battle scene as pitiless as anything Homer might offer – in places it’s almost a precise translation. One man has his head cleaved in two “like a split walnut”. Another is stabbed so deeply in his belly that (word for word Homer) his “liver slid out”. But Barker goes further. She tells us that the mother of one of these men had a two-day labour with him. That another man, as a boy, had puckered his face in concentration so solemnly his mother had wanted to laugh. Before, their appalling deaths drew your eye. With these details, you want to look away.
Yet Barker does too much that it is irritating, and does it too often, to be great. She favours tell not show – and worse still, often tells in italics. For intensity, perhaps. Achilles addresses his mother, the goddess Thetis, in italics, too. “Mummy, Mummy,” he says, sounding more Walter the Softy than godlike Achilles.
The novel is also full of anachronism. It’s unfair to be too pedantic – any historical novel set in distant times and lands is all anachronism anyway as it’s in English. But there are striking ones here – often (unsurprisingly given Barker’s past work) from the First World War. Soldiers discuss taking a few feet of ground, as if this were Ypres rather than Ilium. Wounded soldiers are taken to a medical tent staffed by women where men lie in ranks. At one point, when someone dies, his pulse is felt for. This feels less like the Trojan War than the First World War in greaves.
But then even if this isn’t a great book, it is perhaps a necessary one. Readers need a prod. I did. When I read the Iliad many years ago, and learned that Achilles had had his prize stolen by Agamemnon, my reaction was to think “poor Achilles”. The girls were silent for me. They aren’t now.
Catherine Nixey is the author of “The Darkening Age: the Christian Destruction of the Classical World” (Pan)
The Silence of the Girls
Hamish Hamilton, 325pp, £18.99