Monday, 10 December 2018

Pat Barker: The Silence of the Girls

The Silence of the GirlsThe Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's boom-time for classical mythology re-treads. They're all at it: Madeline Miller, Kamila Shamsie, Natalie Haynes. Even Stephen Fry's jumped on the bandwagon. And the most recent trend has been giving voice to history's silent voices: women. Circe, in Miller's case, and now Breseis in Pat Barker's female-orientated re-telling of The Iliad.

I spent much of the time I was reading this book thinking it was little more than just that: a re-telling of an ancient myth. Yes, from a female perspective; yes, giving voice to those denied it for three thousand years of history. But not adding much to the story: not providing any real insights into what is obvious to a modern reader of Homer, not adding much to help us read between the lines of the old, old text.

Only towards the end does The Silence of the Girls really get going. With the haunted dreams of Achilles (recalling the merciless slaughter of battle) we see the original hero for the first time as something more than a mere monster. And by then - just as with the Homeric epic it derives from - it’s (almost) too late. But just as Achilles’ one final act of contrition restores a glimmer of humanity to the story, Barker’s last-gasp grapple with some serious psychology restores her own literary authority, her ownership of this story, along with some sense that she’s done slightly more than merely re-write the original, adding the odd 'fuck' and 'piss' and 'prick' to the archaic dialogue.

That aside, there are some memorable lines, economically expressed. 'Thanks to them, he’s never alone, and because they’re not Patroclus he’s never more alone than when he’s with them' (p.255) writes Barker of a man sunk in depths of almost insurmountable mourning: 'because grief’s only ever as deep as the love it’s replaced' (p.248). And the changes in tense and perspective between Breseis’ first-person, past-tense narrative and the vivid but anonymous first-person narration of the author (? - it’s never made clear) are as smooth as the most sophisticated, well-oiled, chariot axle.

The Iliad may be among the oldest stories ever told but its's never been static. Each generation seems to express a need to transform it to suit a new audience. Latin poets such as Dares of Phrygia made of it a sort of 'boy's own' adventure to inspire heroic feats while Virgil, of course, transformed the events into the founding myth of Rome.

This is all understandable. We don’t get the 'happy ever after' in the original that we’re so desperate for. The reconciliation between Priam and Achilles comes to late. It ends badly for them both. And we don't even hear how (not in The Iliad at least).

Barker's magic, too, comes just a little too late to transform a prosaic retelling into something more, something is so obviously could have been, but which for most of it's relatively short length is a straightforward re-telling of the original... albeit from the perspective of a woman.

Then again, maybe that's all it needs to be?

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