One of the oldest works in Western literature, the Iliad by Homer, is about a fight over a woman, but while plenty is said by the men doing the fighting, the woman says nothing at all.
Man Booker Prize-winning author Pat Barker, 75, is known for her harrowing historical fiction, such as the Regeneration trilogy, set during World War I.
But in her latest book, The Silence Of The Girls (reviewed here), she goes back to the ancient Greek myth of the Trojan War – fought for 10 years over Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world – to give a voice to the women silenced in war.
“Everything that happens in the Iliad is still happening in the modern world,” she says over the phone from her home in Durham, Britain.
“The taking of slaves was still happening recently in Iraq and Syria – ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) held regular slave markets at which Yazidi girls were sold, some very young indeed.
“Closer to home in the United Kingdom, there are illegal refugees who have no protection from the law – if they are raped or sexually assaulted, they don’t go to the police because they don’t want to reveal their illegal status. They are typically working without proper wages and have nowhere safe to live – their status is little better than slaves.
“You can’t say this is the past, or even miles away. It is in our own cities that these kinds of things happen.”
The Silence Of The Girls (reviewed below) tells the Trojan War story through the eyes of Briseis, a young queen taken as the war slave of Achilles, the Greek army’s greatest fighter. Briseis is a minor character in Homer’s original, the subject of a falling-out between Achilles and the Greek commander Agamemnon, but she enables Barker to give a voice to the women of the war camp.
“If I write about war, I do it from a woman’s perspective,” says Barker, who writes to dispel the notion that war is the exclusive domain of men.
She cites a scene from the Iliad where the Trojan princess Andromache goes to the battlements because she is frightened for her husband, Hector, leader of the Trojan army. “He tells her quite explicitly that war is men’s work, you go back to the house and do your work, which is weaving – leave war to men.
“Andromache ends up seeing her child thrown from the battlements of Troy and becomes the concubine of the man who did it. So leaving war to men does not work very well for Andromache, nor for any woman or child. They are more the victims of war than the fighting man.”
Barker, who has written 14 books, is best known for her war fiction and depictions of trauma. “What interests me is the process of recovery, what doctors, nurses, family and friends can do to help, but also what the traumatised individual can do for himself or herself.”
Her Regeneration trilogy features historical figures such as war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers, who treated both for shell shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, as well as the fictional working-class officer Billy Prior.
The first book in the trilogy, Regeneration (1991), was made into a film, while the last, The Ghost Road, won the Booker prize in 1995.
She says she had to do more research for these than for Silence, for which she mostly just reread the Iliad and other myths and “got into conversation with them – you couldn’t have a better conversation partner than the Iliad”.
Even so, details from her WWI research came in useful for depicting the Trojan war.
In Silence, many men die from an infection that can be heard under the skin as a crackling noise. Barker based this on gas gangrene, which happens when open wounds come into contact with bacteria from fertile soil, and which would have factored in the high death rate of WWI battlefields such as Flanders, let alone the plains of Troy before modern medicine.
Myth is new for Barker, although Silence can be situated within a recent wave of retellings of the Greek classics, including Madeline Miller’s feminist take on The Odyssey in Circe (2018), Colm Toibin’s House Of Names (2017) about Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia, and Kamila Shamsie updating the tragedy of Antigone for a modern-day British-Pakistani family in Home Fire (2017).
“People tend to look back at the beginning at the end of their lives, and you see it at the end of centuries, these attempts to work out the past,” says Barker.
“What’s interesting about this looking back at the dawn of literature is – what are we coming to the end of? Is it the end of patriarchy or the end of literature? One is optimistic, one more pessimistic, and it’s very difficult to estimate which.”
Barker is one of 17 women to have won the Booker in its 50 years, alongside Penelope Lively for Moon Tiger (1987) and Margaret Atwood for The Blind Assassin (2000). Silence was tipped to make the Booker longlist this year, but lost to Michael Ondaatje’s World War II novel, Warlight, among others.
Does writing a male protagonist put you in better stead to win prizes like the Booker than a female one? “Probably,” says Barker, although she also notes the current Booker longlist has more women on it than men.
“A male protagonist is a way for a woman writer to say, I am not going to be bound by my gender, I am not going to do what is considered appropriate for a woman, which is to write family stories or scenes of domestic life. It is a way for a woman writer to claim a larger stage.
“Having said that, it’s not a solution, is it? The solution would be for a woman to write a novel with a female protagonist which will also claim a larger stage.”
Barker has a son, John, and daughter, the novelist Anna Ralph, in their 40s, and four grandchildren. Her husband David Barker, a zoology professor and neurologist, died in 2009.
Barker was born out of wedlock in Thornaby-on-Tees, Yorkshire, and never knew her father. After her mother left, she was raised by her grandparents, who ran a fish and chip shop, and spent her teenage years living on national assistance after the shop failed.
Her first novel, Union Street (1982), about seven working class women in north-eastern England and the poverty and violence they experience, met with publisher rejections because it was considered too bleak and depressing, before renowned writer Angela Carter suggested she send it to feminist publisher Virago.
“Rejection is very good for writers,” says Barker, who more than 30 years later has continued to write bleak and depressing fiction to much acclaim. “It either makes you give up or be more bloody-minded to be yourself.
“It must not make you watch the market and write what publishers seem to want. They don’t know what they want. They want to be pleasantly surprised.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network