Pat Barker on giving voice to the enslaved women of Homer's Iliad

The Silence of the Girls is a powerful retelling of The Iliad, reimagined from the point of view of Briseis, the 15-year-old queen who becomes Achilles’s captured slave.
Pat Barker is an award-winning historical novelist from Britain. (Penguin Random House)
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English novelist Pat Barker is the author of two prize-winning trilogies, set during the First and Second World Wars. Her first, the Regeneration Trilogy, is regarded as a masterpiece of British historical fiction. In her new novel, The Silence of the Girls, Barker goes back 3,000 years to explore the trauma of another war ― the Trojan War of classical mythology ― focusing on the devastating experience of women.

The Silence of the Girls is a powerful retelling of The Iliad, reimagined from the point of view of Briseis, the 15-year-old queen who becomes Achilles's captured slave. At the heart of the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, Briseis is largely silent in Homer's epic poem. Now, Barker has given us her perspective ― offering a window into the world of the story's female characters.

The Silence of the Girls is a finalist for the U.K.'s Costa Book Award, and is featured on several best-of-the-year lists. Barker won the Man Booker Prize in 1995 for her novel, The Ghost Road.

Barker talked to Eleanor Wachtel from Newcastle, England.

Silencing of female voices

"The Iliad's opening is literally the silence of the girls. Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel over two very young girls, who are about 15, 16, 17 years old. The girls say nothing at all, while the men make these brilliant, eloquent speeches. Homeric warriors were great talkers. It was almost as important to be able to impress people in debate as it was to excel on the battlefield. There is this saying, which was current, I think, throughout ancient Greece: 'Silence becomes a woman.' Two of the characters quote this to each other at one point and they burst out laughing ― in that kind of subversive laughter you sometimes get in a group of women."

The strength of Briseis

"Briseis was the queen of Lyrnessus. She married at 15, the average age for marriage for girls at the time. She hadn't been married very long and she hadn't had children. Her husband and her brothers are killed by Achilles and the same day she is awarded to him, as his prize of honour. She literally starts the day as a queen and ends the day being raped by the man who has slaughtered her entire family. You can't have a bigger shock, a bigger traumatic event. The question you have to ask is, 'How does a girl or woman survive this?' What pulls her through is partly friendship, which is offered by other women, but also her own innate resilience and strength of character.

"A perennial theme in my work is recovery from trauma. The trauma she suffers is about the worst trauma I've ever written about. In this case, I'm looking at the violence of war inflicted on women, which typically lasts far longer. It's women who pick up the pieces and are still doing so, decades after the war is over."

No love here

"What horrifies me is how many commentators assume Briseis was in love with Achilles. Of course, Achilles is the tallest, the strongest, the fastest, the most beautiful man of his generation. Here you are in bed with this miracle ― why would you not fall in love with him? Because he killed my brothers. He burned my home down. The erotic potential of these actions is very low. She doesn't love him. I was saying this to one male commentator and his reply was, 'Oh I see. So she's in love with Patroclus.' The idea that perhaps she isn't in love with any of them was obviously very hard to grasp, but I do think the majority of women will actually find it quite easy to grasp if they think about it for a second. You do not fall in love with people who kill the people you love. Simple as that."

The brilliance of Homer

"Reading The Iliad was an amazing experience. I initially read it purely for the story of Agamemnon and Achilles. It was only on my second or third reading that I decided I simply had to plow through it line by line and read all the battlefield scenes and they are extraordinary too. Although they are very explicitly violent, they are also deeply compassionate.

"Homeric similes are quite different from the similes of any of writer that I've read. Quite frequently, he contrasts a very violent scene with a very peaceful scene. It has the effect of freeze-framing the violence. I've never known anybody else able to do that the way he does it and he's doing it right at the beginning of literary civilization."

Sense of an ending

"I think nobody really understands [why the classics feel relevant today]. I feel partly that when people are near the end of their individual lives, they very frequently go back to their childhood and remember those times very vividly. Going back to the beginning as you near the end is a way of making sense of things, of pulling the threads through.

"I just wonder whether we don't have a sense of coming to the end of something. To be optimistic, you could be coming to the end of patriarchy. You could be saying the Time's Up movement means something and that women are actually calling time on being second-class citizens. Or you could be pessimistic and say we're coming to the end of a certain kind of civilization. Of course, in Britain we are also coming to the end of a certain relationship that we had with Europe. There are a lot of endings around. There is a sense of ending in the current atmosphere. I think that may be one of the reasons we are going back to the first stories that were ever told in the European literary canon."

Pat Barker's comments have been edited for clarity and length.