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13th October, 2018

Durham Town Hall

Interview by Yanmin Zhuchen

The inspiration for The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker tells me, arose from reading Philip Roth’s The Human Stain – a particular quote from which serves as the opening to her novel. It’s what drove her to read the Iliad and made her want to address the crushing silence from the lack of female voices in classical literature. Barker is clear that she thinks she has failed in giving a voice to Briseis (from whose perspective we see most of the novel’s action), as it is still ‘Achilles’ grief, his anger and his story’.

And yet, this is hard to believe, as so many of her choices in reworking the ancient text give the women of Homer’s epic a chance to be heard and understood. She purposefully condenses the scene of Hector’s death as she ‘didn’t want to replicate the extreme violence of battlefield.’ Instead, she emphasises the fact that his death is announced through the sound of the women’s lamentations. She also draws upon the Greek tragedian Euripides, and his harrowing work Trojan Women, to extend the narrative beyond Achilles’ death and give Briseis more opportunity to use her voice. It is a masterful balance of the ancient text and our modern sensibilities; even if it remains Achilles’ story, it has nonetheless been disrupted by Briseis’ voice – and this, surely, cannot be considered a failure.

Did she have any qualms about reworking Homer? No, she replies, as the more she read his work, the more she admired the ancient poet: ‘a very human, very compassionate, very powerful mind.’ She was most struck, as many modern readers are, by his similes, as they often underlined a difference as opposed to a similarity, creating a freeze-frame on the violence by drawing comparison to peacetime activities. This ability to contrast and invert well-known tropes is something that Barker also does, with effortless ease. Barker voices in Briseis’ thoughts a jarring revision of Priam’s iconic words to Achilles (‘I … have endured what no other mortal on the face of earth hath yet endured, to reach forth my hand to the face of him that hath slain my sons’) in Book 24 of the Iliad: ‘And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.’ I ask her if this line was one that she purposefully drew out of the original text, or whether it just sparked in her mind. She tells me it was the latter, as ‘once I had Briseis’ voice, it never really left me.’ It takes strong empathy to create a narrative from a different perspective, and more so when that perspective has no original voice.

When I ask her who she thinks could benefit most from reading the novel, she tells me that the group she would most like to see take something away from the novel are young men. A number of men (and it is here that her voice dips sotto voce as though telling me a terrible secret) just accept that Briseis must have been in love with Achilles. When she explained to one of them that she cannot have been in love with the man that killed her family and burnt her house down, she is told that: ‘Oh yes, I see, she’s in love with Patroclus.’ It’s this obsession with the romance which so utterly blocks out the truth of the matter – the destruction of a people. Barker is clear that she doesn’t write about anything that isn’t currently happening, referring to the plight of the Rohingya women and the Yazidi women – and the many more of whom we still do not hear. ‘It’s not just happening in the past or in other countries’, Barker warns, ‘it comes back to our doorsteps.’

As a classicist, I cannot resist asking a loaded question at the end: is there a timelessness in these ancient narratives? Barker’s answer is resolute and honest: ‘These stories are not ephemeral, unlike today’s 24/7 stories can be. There is now a hunger for stories which will go on being news, the ones that last.’ As many can already attest to, The Silence of the Girls is exactly one of those narratives – moving, masterful and compassionate – for it not only gives a voice to those silenced, but one that will always be heard in ages to come.

This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.