Last but not least, Pat Barker’s brilliantly brutal new novel The Silence of the Girls rounds off our series of reviews of this year’s Women's Prize shortlist. Like fellow author and nominee Madeline Miller, Barker’s novel is a Grecian retelling that gives women a much needed voice, but the similarities end there. This dark and violent tale goes beyond beyond wooden horses, bronze spears and macho prowess to share the realities of war for those who history and literature have silenced.
You’re not alone if Troy evokes images of Brad Pitt, golden and smouldering in polished armour, but Barker’s Achilles couldn’t be further from the Hollywood heartthrob history has imagined. Immature and petty, we see the great hero through the eyes of Breseis. Given to Achilles as a prize by the Greek army for sacking her city, the Trojan queen turned bed-slave narrates the final months of the war from inside the camp. Barker’s novel doesn’t just give a new perspective on The Iliad, it’s a powerful diatribe against the rich literary tradition of celebrating the glory of men, while erasing the stories of women.
Whether your reference is Brad Pitt or Homer’s original verse, the women of Troy have always been inconvenient props. Helen, “the face that launch’d a thousand ships,” is mentioned a mere six times and given only a handful of lines in the poem which spans 24 books. Barker rectifies this imbalance and imagines how different the story would have been if women had been allowed to share in the narrative. In The Silence of the Girls, the fall of Troy is not glorious, it is not divine, it is not epic. It is enslavement, rape and brutality. Distressingly authentic but deeply human, Barker’s version of events is a brilliantly researched novel that will stand tall against its ancient counterpart for many years to come.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. Penguin Books, 2019.