Tunisia, September 1991. A younger, blonder version of me is sitting on a wall within the ruins of ancient Carthage. The photograph is exactly how I remember it: the foundations of a once-great city, a few pillars still defiantly erect, a few trees reasserting themselves, date palms and olives, not enough to provide shade from the fierce afternoon sun, and miles and miles of clear sky and empty sea. In my mind, though, the sea is not empty, it’s full of ships sailing away from Carthage, and Queen Dido sees them too, heart-broken, suicidal, knowing that her lover, Aeneas, has rejected her offer of marriage and is leaving forever. Does she rush off to kill herself when the sea is still swarming with ships and sails? Or does she stay rooted to the spot long after they’ve disappeared over the horizon and only then, numb with watching, sink onto her sword?
The girl-that-was-me in the photograph is smiling, happily inhabiting a liminal place that was simultaneously 20th Century AD and 12th Century BC, both real and mythical. (On the other side of the lens Hubby, I remember, was not smiling: he was hot, underwhelmed by the ruins, and very, very grumpy.)
If you know your Greco-Roman legends, you’ll know Trojan Aeneas and his followers were driven onto the shores of Carthage by a storm while trying to reach Italy after the fall of Troy. And it is that iconic, ill-fated city that inspires Pat Barker’s novel The Silence of the Girls.
Or rather it’s The Illiad, Homer’s epic poem written circa 8th century BC. Barker takes Homer’s story of the siege of Troy and re-imagines it from the perspective of Briseis, Queen of Lyrnessus, who is captured and awarded to Achilles as a war-prize after the Greeks sacked her city.
The title of the novel – The Silence of the Girls – perhaps seems a little odd because Briseis is the narrator of the novel, except for a few chapters which Achilles narrates. In that sense she – a ‘girl’ – is not silent and not silenced. And yet…and yet…although the reader is presented with events from Briseis’ point of view this is “Achilles’ story…his anger, his grief, his story” as Briseis herself recognises. His story i.e. history, as we know it, as are taught it.
The Silence of the Girls has it all: visceral descriptions of close combat, vivid details of camp life – a rape camp, Barker calls it (and we should be mindful that the siege of Troy lasted 10 years) – as well as more lyrical passages around ‘butcher’ Achilles’ relationship with his mother, Thetis, a sea nymph.
Barker’s novel is clever but not self-consciously intellectual, moving but not sentimental. I found it totally, utterly absorbing right to the last page – no mean feat when you’re re-telling one of the oldest and most famous stories in Western literature.
Rating: **** One of the best books I’ve read this year
PS The Silence of the Girls was short-listed for the 2018 Costa Novel Award. The eventual winner was Normal People by Sally Rooney. I haven’t read Rooney’s novel but I’ll be sure to read it one day because if it beat TSOTG, it must be electric!
PPS The 2018 Costa Book of the Year Award went to the biography The Cut Out Girl by Bart Van Es, which I reviewed in an earlier blog post.