Pat Barker, the English woman writer, is, at her best, one of the world’s greatest living novelists. She may be the finest novelist writing about men at war; her “Regeneration Trilogy”, one novel of which won the prestigious Booker Prize for Literature, is written about soldiers suffering from what was then first called “shell-shock” in World War I. It centers, too, around the real man/poet/novelist Siegfried Sassoon, a British writer of the WW I era, and his therapy with a psychiatrist, whose job it was to get these shell-shocked men back into battle. Today, we call this condition PTSD, or Post Trauma Stress Disorder, which has been rampant, pandemic, with returning soldiers who fought particularly in Iraq, but evidence of which was first manifest, although ignored, in many returning soldiers from Vietnam.
Thus, Barker’s newest novel, “The Silence of The Girls”, has been much anticipated. This novel looks at the Trojan War, supposedly from the perspective of one particular woman, Breisis, a queen of one Greek city-state who becomes a slave to Achilles, the hero/anti-hero of the Trojan war, as he “wins” her in battle. (All surviving men in these wars were massacred, so that the sons/brothers/husbands will never grow up to seek revenge on their conquerors). The promise of the novel is that the reader will see this war from the perspective of women, not just one, who become the slaves/sex slaves of the winning warriors. Alas, Barker’s novel does not remotely achieve that goal; Breisis, who is “won” by Achilles, but who’s also taken by King Agamemnon, seems to accept her fate–of being both a slave and repeatedly raped–with a kind of detached calm, and there’s very little said about or from other women in her situation. Not a word of rage, of anger, of panic.
That said, however, Barker’s analysis of Achilles is first-rate. Just a tad of history here: Helen, the woman whose “face launched l000 ships”, was married to the Greek king Menelaus, and Paris, son of the King of Troy, has visited as a houseguest, and run off to Troy with Helen: thus the Trojan war. Achilles is the son of a mortal man and a sea goddess, thus mortal. His mother ran off when he was just a boy, and his friend Patroclus comes to live with Achilles and his father as punishment for killing a boy in a fight. “The Silence of The Girls” is really a study of the friendship/presumed love affair between these two men, which Barker handles admirably, no, brilliantly, in a low-key way; the strength of the novel is in this narrative, told to us by Breisis. Patroclus is the only man in the war who’s decent to her, and to other captured women, and he’s the only man who brings out Achilles’ sensitive (feminine?) side. One wishes that Barker had stuck strictly to this love story/relationship as the core of this novel, as “The Silence of The Girls” remains pretty silent about the girls/women entirely. Breisis is far too detached for a woman who’s watched all the men in her family be slaughtered by Achilles and then repeatedly raped by the same man. Her reasoned approach towards her captivity seems all too contemporary British, perhaps reflecting Pat Barker herself. In trying to avoid sexual sensationalism, Barker misses her mark nearly entirely in explicating to the reader what the girls and women actually live through and/or feel. But she’s brilliant in writing about Achilles and Patroclus. Perhaps the novels is simply mistitled.
The review in The New York Times Book Review of Barker’s novel is by Geraldine Brooks, another much admired writer about figures from history, most recently King David of The Old Testament, so that Brooks knows Barker’s territory well, and she also chides Barker for the lack of real insight about the women in the title of Barker’s book. These criticisms, however, in no way should keep the reader away from Barker’s novel; just don’t expect much in the way of insights about women in the book, but look for brilliant ones about a number of men in these endless wars, Achilles in particular, and you won’t be disappointed.