The Gordon Burn Prize 2019: The Silence of the Girls

By

Books Editor

The Iliad is one of the most famous works of literature in history, having been told countless times. And yet Pat Barker’s new novel, The Silence of the Girls, succeeds in an important retelling which will make a lay reader reconsider their perspective on classical literature. In an epic for our times, Barker presents the Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, a young Trojan woman whose home is ransacked by the Greeks; she becomes the ‘prize’ of Achilles, forced to act as his slave and bedfellow, until she finds herself at the heart of an intense political tension between Achilles and King Agamemnon.

An important retelling which will make a lay reader reconsider their perspective

Introducing an entire cast of female characters, the novel’s title reminds us that the ‘girls’ of these stories have for too long been silent, not only in literature itself but in analysis and discussion of it. Briseis is given a rare voice, which she uses to draw attention to her fellow women, and to the many anonymous Trojans who are slaughtered by the Greeks. Barker does not shy away from detailing the lives of women forced to be slaves and concubines, and readily creates a realistic and thoughtful portrait of an epic hero like Achilles, portraying him as proud and cruel, but not altogether irredeemable.

While even a limited knowledge of the classics arguably makes reading this novel more rewarding, Barker does not alienate those unfamiliar with the Iliad. Rather, she constructs a world which is wholly immersive and believable, in which the Greek Gods are very much real, and names like Automedon, Patroclus and Hecuba are used without requiring the reader to possess a detailed knowledge of Ancient Greek literature. Barker weaves her story effortlessly around Homer’s mythological narrative, without inviting readers to question it – I didn’t find myself feeling incredulous when the characters attributed various events to a higher power, or accepted that Achilles is the son of Thetis, a sea goddess.

Barker does not alienate those unfamiliar with the Iliad

The narrative shifts between Briseis’ first-person narration, and the less frequent third-person, usually focusing on Achilles’ perspective with free indirect speech. There is nothing to indicate this change in perspective beyond the text itself, and at first it takes a few lines or paragraphs to work out who is speaking. Nevertheless, Barker’s prose is characteristically masterful, simple enough and not difficult to read, but entirely natural and never forced. I preferred those passages narrated by Briseis herself, as her version of events felt more central to the book, but using the third-person was essential to construct the actual storyline, and did not feel out of place.

The only real criticism of The Silence of the Girls is that, now and again, Barker inexplicably inserts what I would consider clichés of modern literature: just the occasional line which feels more like it belongs in a banal young adult novel. Lines like ‘Something in me died that night’ and ‘I hadn’t known till then I was holding my breath’ – they just didn’t need to be there, and seemed to cheapen the quality of prose in what is otherwise an excellent novel.

Powerful, fiercely feminist and sensitively-written story

Nevertheless, The Silence of the Girls is a powerful, fiercely feminist and sensitively-written story, from an author who has previously proven her skills in writing about conflict and the unheard voices of female characters. It’s the kind of novel one can read in a couple of days, offering an accessible and thought-provoking angle on a classical legend.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker is nominated for the Gordon Burn Prize 2019 as part of the Durham Book Festival. The winner will be announced in Durham Town Hall on Thursday 10th October 2019 from 8pm. More information can be found at: https://durhambookfestival.com/programme/event/the-gordon-burn-prize/

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