Friday, February 28, 2020

The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker

This account of the final year of the Trojan war is largely from the perspective of princess-turned-slave Briseis, although there are also a few chapters told from the point of view of Patroclus and Achilles.
"What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times [in the future, i.e. us]? 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. They won't want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they'll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers are.
His story. His, not mine. It ends at his grave." (p. 324)
It's a violent story, but much of the menace comes from the constant threat of violence. For example, Briseis is hounded by the thought that Achilles - or Agamemnon - will tire of her and pass her over to the common soldiery. We follow the politics, the gamesmanship, of the women in surviving. It's haunting, oppressive and compelling.

It's a book full of complexity and nuance, enriching the familiar story. The men have the power and yet they are clearly trapped, too, on that beach in sight of Troy: trapped by their own pride, obstinacy, petty in-fighting. Barker makes it all vivid and fresh, but I found myself back in my secondary school classroom in the weeks after weeks that our classics teacher recounted, from memory, the Iliad and Odyssey. His speciality, I think, was in oral storytelling; those weeks felt at the time like we were getting away with not doing real work, and yet it all went in. I recall those lessons, that story, more vividly than pretty much any other moment of that school. It was, looking back on it, an ideal adventure for an all-boys' school: Odysseus the wily nerd besting the jocks of the Greek army.

But that meant the women played only minor roles. I've since read, years ago now, Elizabeth Cook's Achilles - recommended to me by a friend from that same school - but I haven't yet got to Margaret Attwood's The Penelopiad or Madeleine Miller's The Song of Achilles. There's clearly a movement to redress the relative silence of women in the archetypal myth of Troy. Here, as in so many versions, the irony of Cassandra is that even those who know of the curse that means her (true) prophecies are not heeded still don't listen to her anyway. But she's only one of the many unheeded women, their lives defined - and curtailed - by men.

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