The phenomenon by which groups of animals all suddenly begin to copy a new behaviour – like blue-tits learning to open milk bottle tops – has been termed morphic resonance. Something very similar to the blue-tits’ discovery has recently been happening to fiction.
Mary Renault began it in the 1950s, with best-selling novels like The King Must Die, making Ancient Greece so much her own that few dared go near it. Recently, however, Kamila Shamsie updated Antigone in Home Fires. Colm Toibin (House of Names) and Natalie Haynes (The Children of Jocasta) tackled the house of Atreus and Madeleine Miller (The Song of Achilles, Circe) reworked the Iliad then the Odyssey. All have produced noteworthy literary fiction drawing on ancient Greek myth; Shamsie and Miller each won the Women’s Prize.
Now Pat Barker has joined the throng with The Silence of the Girls, which tells the story of the Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, the slave girl awarded to Achilles in the 10th year of the Trojan war, which sets in train the events that lead to the city’s fall. It may seem an unusual move for a novelist who has hitherto been chiefly preoccupied with the two World Wars in works such as the Regeneration trilogy (the third of which won the 1995 Booker Prize) and the Noonday trilogy. Yet Barker’s subject has always been violence – and, curiously, the feminisation of men who endure it. The great insight afforded to Regeneration, her novel about the treatment of the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart, was about how men in the trenches became very like women.
Such is the power and passion of plays in which Ancient Greek heroines from Medea and Antigone have been given central roles, however, that most of us somehow failed to realise just how reified the female sex once were. In The Silence of the Girls, she gives voice to the voiceless: the innumerable and usually unnamed captives, turned from free women to slaves and chattels.
Briseis is unusual in being one of the few women, besides Helen and the Trojan royal women (e.g Hecuba, Andromache, Cassandra), to be given a name by Homer. An eighteen-year-old princess of Lyrnessus with slaves of her own, she becomes Achilles’s trophy and bed-slave after choosing not to die when her city is sacked. She becomes, to the Greeks, “it”.
Barker has never minced words about sex, and her heroine’s repeated rape by Achilles is as grim as you might expect. (“He made love – huh! – as if he hoped the next fuck would kill me”.) Those used to Mary Renault’s rapturous descriptions of Theseus’s feelings for the captured Hippolyta will get a shock. In fact, Briseis is lucky: the fourteen-year-old virgin Chryseis, has to take it up “the back passage” from the loathsome Agamemnon.
Briseis is also fortunate in that her post-coital sea-bathes and appearance remind Achilles of his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis who abandoned him as a child. Several feminist writers, including the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Madeleine Miller have written about what Thetis must have felt like, forced to give birth to a mortal child doomed to tragic greatness. You wonder how Barker will deal with gods and miracles, when her novel’s tone is pragmatic and its forte is psychological insight, but her solution is to show you a relationship that, despite being supernatural is, well, Oedipal. The goddess is real, and as she “walks back into the sea, sinking beneath a swelling wave, her black hair fanning out across the water, there for a second, then gone,” we know she is about to be one more bereaved mother.
In many ways, Briseis’s caustic, dryly funny voice is not a million miles away from those in her 1982 debut Union Street, describing women’s lives in her native North-Eastern England. Memory and trauma are repeated themes in all her novels, as is survival. All the enslaved women must learn both to forget the horrors of seeing their children, brothers, husbands and fathers slaughtered, to endure rape whether by one man or many, and to survive in the Greek war camp. This they do with humour and resilience. A particularly good detail is that they also must weave, and so get the “hacking coughs” from inhaling minute particles of wool which would have been familiar to all Northern mill-workers.
Interleaved with Briseis’s account is a more lyrical third-person version of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, which follows the Homeric original [in – it is not homosexual in Homer] leaving it ambiguous whether they were and are lovers. It doesn’t (as it does in Miller’s Song of Achilles) matter. What does is that Patroclus is a kind man. It is his kindness that causes Briseis, Achilles (and the reader) to love him, and it is his kindness and courage that brings about his doom.
Some of the most moving passages of the original, such as Achilles’s horses weeping for the dead Patroclus, are missing, and what happens to Hector’s dead body is also unexpected. We see no other gods, but much suffering. “It would have been easier, in many ways, to slip into thinking we were all in this together, equally imprisoned on this narrow strip of land between the sand dunes and the sea; easier, but false. They were men, and free. I was a woman, and a slave,” Briseis observes, tartly. What we get is a samizdat version of the Iliad, muttered under the breath by the overlooked, shadowy but ever-watchful underclass. Without the Homeric heroics, nobility, and divine pity what is left in this taut, masterly, wholly absorbing novel is still one of the greatest stories ever written.
The novel plays with what we know will happen to make us fearful for our heroine’s future. In the poem, she simply disappears from the story after cutting her hair in mourning for Achilles. Will she, like Chryseis, get taken to Troy and meet her doom there? Or does she have more feelings for Achilles, seen by the women as “a butcher” rather than a godlike hero, but eventually almost kind to her. Even if she is “stuck inside his story … with no real part to play in it,” she is a survivor, after all. In the end, and most surprisingly, a kind of happiness is wrested out of tragedy and ruin.
It is not generally known that the omission of Pat Barker’s Regeneration from the Booker shortlist by the all-male panel of judges in 1991 was the trigger for the foundation of the Orange (now Women’s) Prize. Her omission from this year’s Man Booker longlist is a decision equally lamentable. It is a book that will be read in generations to come.