This stupendous book was on the Shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction which is one reason why I’m writing about it now. It’s a richly deserved place because Pat Barker is a powerful writer, one of the most powerful I have ever read. I started with Union Street back in 1982 and have been a fan ever since.
The Silence of the Girls is Pat’s take on the Trojan war. Not for her the posturing of the famous heroes, however renowned they might be and however much Homer admired them. Their courage in battle is undeniable but there is much, much more to them then hacking other men to pieces and making noble speeches – although, to be fair to Homer, he does show us how petty and tiresome they can be when they quarrel, with Achilles quick to offer insults and sulking in his tent when he loses the argument.
The men in Pat Barker’s clear eyed version of the Iliad are cruel in the extreme and in every sense of the words ‘blood-thirsty’. We first see Achilles hacking his way through the Trojan forces, protected by his God-given armour and his semi-divine parentage, killing at random, brutally and almost carelessly.
Women are treated as the spoils of war, even if they are Queens and/or daughters of Kings. They are passed from man to man, raped, beaten and quarreled over, not as people, but as prizes. The war is a very ugly business and everything these heroes do is brutal, even the burying of their dead.
Virgins and young men are sacrificed and put on the funeral pyres 5, 7, 10 at a time and many of the virgins were just little girls. Animals are killed in the same way and in the same way too. Not just for feasts, but for funerals and they die in pain and terror as Pat shows us. She is passionately opposed to the horror and cruelty of war.
At the end of this stunning, terrifying and shocking story, Briseis, the main protagonist, looks into the future and wonders what future generations will make of her ghastly tale.
‘What will they make of us,’ she says. ‘The people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.