‘If you’re a woman the whole of European literature starts with silence’
Pat Barker’s latest novel retells the siege of Troy from a female perspective
Pat Barker: “What inspired me was reading Homer and finding the women silent.” Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images
“The quotation at the beginning of my new novel,” the Booker Prize winning author Pat Barker tells me, “is by Philip Roth. He says that European literature starts ‘with a quarrel’. I think this is true if you’re a man. If you’re a woman the whole of European literature starts with silence.” The extract Barker has taken as an epigraph for her 14th book, The Silence of the Girls, describes Agamemnon and Achilles arguing over the ownership of Briseis in The Iliad. She was a queen who Achilles took as his slave after he sacked her city and killed her family. Now, Barker has taken her back as a protagonist.
“What inspired me was reading Homer and finding the women silent. They were handed around as prizes between these very powerful men, and they had no position, no agency and no voice. So my motive was to fill that in.”
Barker’s first three novels of the 1980s described the lives of working class women in the industrial north and northeast of England, where the author was born in 1943. At a time when an LRB review of her referred to the “working-class novel” as a genre in itself, she was typecast; a judgement she overturned by writing a slew of war novels that culminated in a Booker Prize for 1995’s The Ghost Road, which completed a series now known as The Regeneration Trilogy, featuring Siegfried Sassoon. The first World War has, along with excursions into the 1940s, 1950s, and the modern day, proven fertile ground in the two decades since.
What really matters
“The thing about war,” says Barker, “is it places characters with their backs against the wall. Their usual way of existence is taken away, and they’re forced to take decisions under enormous pressure. You get the character revealing what he or she really is, what they really value. We can all drift through life not actually knowing what really matters to us, because we are never forced to articulate it. But I think in these extreme situations, you are much more likely to be forced to reveal and choose what your values actually are.”
By this logic, does Barker think literary novels that centre on ordinary life, rather than extraordinary circumstances, can’t attain such moral urgency? “There are great novels of those kinds. I love Henry James. I love Jane Austen. But I do think in modern fiction we are having a diet of this, which is perhaps why there is a flight either into genre writing – several literary novelists have tried their hands at crime fiction – or into historical fiction, where there are events of agreed significance that force characters to reveal what they think matters in the world. I was being interviewed by the British broadcaster James Naughtie, and he said ‘I just cannot face another novel about a midlife crisis’. I feel that sometimes. It’s a terrible admission but it’s the truth.”
Barker’s historical fiction hovers very closely above fact. Real people – politicians, war poets, doctors and medical artists – take part in real events, along with literary doppelgangers. This is enabled by a cold, neat psychologising, a colloquial energy, and a confidence to allow her best characters to constantly display their very worst sides. In The Silence of The Girls, the greats of Greek legend are almost unrelentingly cruel in their use of our narrator Briseis as a political pawn.
Back to the beginning
“Perhaps there was some sense of wanting to write about the beginning of European literature at the very point at which Britain is leaving Europe. There is a feeling always that when people go back to the beginning it is because they are nearing the end. Old people go back to vivid memories of their childhood, trying to make sense of the beginning in order to round things off. In the 1990s there was a great splurge of interest in the first World War: of looking at the experiences of the beginning of the century and trying to make sense of the way the rest of it was knocked off course by what happened between 1914 and 1918. It wasn’t just me. This present tendency to go back to the beginning, to Greek myths – our oldest – means we have a sense of something coming to an end.” She lists authors such as Madeline Miller and Colm Toibín who are doing similar things with recent works. “We have to hope that it’s not European civilisation. If you’re a woman you can think it’s the patriarchy, but I’m not sure that that’s true.”
In The Silence of the Girls, Barker has created a feminist version of the Trojan War almost parallel to realism. Thetis, Achilles’ sea goddess mother, couldn’t be excluded from an otherwise gritty, stark book, Barker says, because her presence enacts a sort of everyday wisdom. “They have a terrible relationship, Achilles and her: she is endlessly spoiling him but she also abandoned him when he was seven. The key to Achilles is that he has a goddess for a mother. This is true for virtually all really difficult narcissistic men. It’s just his mother happens to be a real goddess.”
Otherwise the action in Barker’s Troy is synthesised to the extent it could be in any of her other novels. Kings speak like van drivers, dealing in a blokish, everyday sexism (which Barker deftly describes as “mainly good-natured” when it isn’t utterly brutal). The women, enslaved nobles, speak like munitions factory workers she’s written before. (Whenever, wherever she sets her work – 1910s Scotland or the Classical Aegean – Barker can’t help making her women northeastern in dialect and diction. At least to a reader from the same neck of the woods as her: “me mam”; “serve the bugger right”, “will he hell” are uttered by people with names like Hecamede.)
‘This is now’
“They are very much the same women as they are in Union Street  and Blow Your House Down ,” Barker tells me. “Because I’m retelling a myth I don’t want it to feel like a novel of the Bronze Age. It’s not that. I wanted there to be anachronisms. Men in tents sing British rugby songs. It’s the exact opposite of writing a historical novel, when you’re trying to create this seamless impression of the past. You want the reader to keep stubbing his toe on a jarring reference which doesn’t fit with the Bronze Age. History is then; this is now.”
But reading The Silence of the Girls, one is struck by how then and now can’t help running together. Towards the very end, Briseis asks: “What will they make of us, 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.” In the present moment, though, there is a cathartic need to bear witness. Whether that is in narrative nonfiction or so-called “autofiction” in the publishing world, or via social media on a mass scale; the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. In that context, stories of hardship and exploitation serve a purpose.
“Obviously nobody starts writing about something that happened 3,000 years ago thinking, ‘my God, this is going to be topical’,” says Barker. “But as I was going through the editorial process I suddenly thought this is topical. And I was aware as I was doing the initial creative work that nothing was happening in the book that was not also happening on the contemporary scene somewhere. People talk about war and slavery, the Yazidi women under Isis: but instead of putting it back in time they’re putting it thousands of miles away. In fact there are illegal refugees living in this country who are subjected to sexual violence, they have nowhere proper to live, no proper jobs. They do not think they can go to the police because they have no friends, their status is illegal, and they’re afraid to draw attention to themselves. Enslavement in war is very much a part of our contemporary lives.”
The Silence of The Girls by Pat Barker is published by Hamish Hamilton