As women across the globe come forward with stories of harassment, abuse, and oppression, novelist Pat Barker is giving voice to fictional women in a classic piece of literature. In The Silence of Girls, out in September from Doubleday, she tells the story of The Iliad from a female perspective.
Barker’s narrator is Briseis, a princess of Troy, captured by Achilles in the Trojan War. The author follows the narrative of Homer’s Greek epic poem closely, deviating only slightly to illustrate the fall of Troy and the women’s fate, as witnessed by Briseis.
Briseis’s plotline, Barker says, represents the most dramatic story in The Iliad: “She is literally a queen one day, and the next day a slave. She horrifically witnesses the death of her youngest brother, Patroclus, to whom she was particularly close. That same night, she’s in the bed of Achilles, the man who killed him. You cannot have a more dramatic reversal of fortunes than that.”
Briseis tells her story to an anonymous listener, perhaps a visitor from the future. She defends her choices, Barker says, to “somebody who might criticize her for trying to set up her marriage to Achilles, done while she’s ostensibly lamenting the death of Patroclus.”
The act of picking up and moving on, Barker says, is at the heart of The Silence. “It’s tracing the steps Briseis takes in order to recover and be a person again.”
The novel follows two strands of Barker’s work: women’s experiences and men in combat. Those familiar with Barker’s books will recognize parallel themes in this one: the complex hierarchy of social class and how it can shift, the aftereffects of war, and the way women talk when there are no men around.
The 75-year-old British novelist is well-versed in historical fiction—and novels about war, in particular. Her popular Regeneration trilogy explores the effects of combat on British army officers in World War I through dialogue with their therapists. Other novels—The Silence is her 14th—capture different periods of 20th-century British history. Barker’s grandfather fought in WWI, and one of Barker’s early memories is seeing his bayonet wound.
Combat in The Iliad depicts the “starkness of the individual hero,” Barker says. “It’s always two individual men facing each other.” She contrasts this with the “mechanized industrial wars of the last century.”
Barker says Achilles’s introspection in The Iliad—his struggle to decide what is worth fighting for—drew her to the material. “Achilles is not just questioning his own previous behavior, he’s questioning the values of epic poetry and the values of The Iliad itself. When you see Achilles doing that, you know you’re in the hands of a great poet.”
Barker’s fascination with war could also come from observing her mother, who was raised in a working-class family, joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service during WWII, and “adored” the war, Barker says, partly because she was serving her country and partly because it was an “adventure”: “A lot of working-class women scarcely went beyond the end of the street once they were married. To go off, hundreds of miles away from home, and be with other women from all classes of society—all that was very stimulating.”
The women forced into sexual slavery in the camps in The Silence have a range of reactions. Briseis’s story is different from the stories the other women in the camp might have told. “As Briseis points out, there’s no uniform descent into misery and degradation,” Barker says. “The particularly pretty girl is doing rather better than the woman who was her mistress, who is getting on a bit and doesn’t count as much.”
Some of these women experience the same feeling of liberation that Barker’s mother may have felt. Ossa, for instance, was a courtesan before being captured by the Greeks. “To have only one man to service—a fairly straightforward, uncomplicated man, sexually, at least—was a holiday for her,” Barker says.
Yet other women’s situations are darker. For instance, Chriseis, a priest’s daughter, was only 15 when she was captured and raped.
Briseis, married at the age of 17, is “somewhere in the middle,” Barker notes. In war, “you do begin to adjust,” she adds. “You begin to realize that your past life is over. Whether you want to cope with the present reality or not, you have to cope with it.”
One can think of Briseis as a predecessor to Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. She is headstrong, smart, and able to manipulate her situation “using the very miniscule amount of power and freedom of choice that she has,” Barker says. She does, at one point, try to escape, but aborts the plan when she realizes that freedom would put her in more danger.
Barker has a knack for capturing the voices of women in everyday life and says she sees the “immensely powerful grapevine between women” as a feature of women’s history—and a way to make progress. “You can view some Victorian novels as coded messages between women,” she says. “Jane Eyre is a notable example. Women have always had this capacity to convey support or intimation to other women. In cases of sexual harassment, that kind of oral grapevine should still be operating—particularly for young women.”
Barker cites Simone Weil’s ‘The Iliad,’ or the Poem of Force, which analyzes the effects of force and enslavement in The Iliad, as an influence. She also considers the Zidi women in Syria and Iraq, bought and sold in markets, as examples of modern slavery.
The arrival of The Silence of the Girls couldn’t be more apropos. Recently, Barker says, Jess Phillips, a British member of Parliament, “spoke out on a controversial issue—which was not only her right but her duty to do—and received 600 rape threats.” She adds, “The issues at stake in The Silence are also being played out in modern society. What I felt the last few months of working on the book, and editing it, was that it seemed to become more and more topical.”
The events described in the book, Barker says, are on par with “the very worst atrocities that have happened, or are happening, in the modern world—we shouldn’t kid ourselves about that at all.”
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, Ky., who contributes to JSTOR Daily, Longreads, Undark magazine, Vice, Vox, and other publications.