Silence of the Girls (Barker)

The Silence of the Girls
Pat Barker, 2018
Knopf Doubleday
304 pp.

From the Booker Prize-winning author of the Regeneration trilogy comes a monumental new masterpiece, set in the midst of literature's most famous war. Pat Barker turns her attention to the timeless legend of The Iliad, as experienced by the captured women living in the Greek camp in the final weeks of the Trojan War.

The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, who continue to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen.

In the Greek camp, another woman watches and waits for the war's outcome: Briseis. She was queen of one of Troy's neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece's greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers.

Briseis becomes Achilles's concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.

When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents.

Keenly observant and cooly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position to observe the two men driving the Greek forces in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate, not only of Briseis's people, but also of the ancient world at large.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war--the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead--all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life.

She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis's perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker's latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives--and it is nothing short of magnificent. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—May 8, 1943
Where—Thornaby-on-Tees, Yorkshire, England, UK
Education—B.A., London School of Economics
Awards—Man Booker Prize
Currently—lives in Durham, England

Patricia Mary W. Barker, CBE is an English writer and novelist. She has won many awards for her fiction, which centres on themes of memory, trauma, survival and recovery. Her work is described as direct, blunt and plainspoken. In 2012, The Observer named her Regeneration Trilogy as one of "The 10 best historical novels."

Personal life
Barker was born to a working-class family in Thornaby-on-Tees in the North Riding of Yorkshire, England. Her mother Moyra died in 2000, and her father's identity is unknown. According to The (London) Times, Moyra became pregnant "after a drunken night out while in the Wrens." In a social climate where illegitimacy was regarded with shame, she told people that the resulting child was her sister, rather than her daughter.

Mother and daughter lived with Barker's grandmother Alice until her mother married and moved out when Barker was seven. Barker chose to stay with her grandmother because of their bond and because, as she told The Guardian in 2003, "my stepfather didn't warm to me, nor me to him."

Her grandparents ran a fish and chip shop which failed, and the family was, she told The Times in 2007, "poor as church mice; we were living on National Assistance." At the age of eleven, Barker won a place at grammar school, attending King James Grammar School in Knaresborough and Grangefield Grammar School in Stockton-on-Tees.

Barker, who says she has always been an avid reader, studied international history at the London School of Economics from 1962-65 After graduating in 1965, she returned home to nurse her grandmother, who died in 1971.

In a pub, in 1969, Barker was introduced to David Barker, a zoology professor and neurologist 20 years her senior. He left his marriage to live with her, they had two children together, and were married in 1978 following his divorce. Barker was widowed when David died in January 2009. Their daughter Anna Barker Ralph is now a novelist.

Early work
Barker began to write fiction in her mid-20s. Although her first three novels were never published, in 1982, after 10 years of rejections, she finally found a publisher for Union Street. The book is an interlinked set of stories detailing the life of working-class women—stories that publishers told her they found "bleak and depressing."

On author Angela Carter's recommendation, Barker sent the manuscript to feminist publisher Virago, who accepted it. Upon its release, the New Statesman hailed Union Street as a "long overdue working class masterpiece," and the New York Times Book Review called it "first-rate, punchy and raunchy. The book remained one of Virago's top sellers for years and was later adapted as the Hollywood film Stanley and Iris, starring Robert De Niro and Jane Fonda.

Regeneration Trilogy
After publishing five novels, Barker turned her attention to the First World War, which she had always wanted to write about. In 1991 she published the first in her war trilogy: Regeneration, followed by The Eye in the Door (1993), and The Ghost Road (1995).

The books are an unusual blend of history and fiction, and Barker draws extensively on the writings of First World War poets and W.H.R. Rivers, an army doctor who worked with traumatized soldiers. The main characters are based on historical figures, with the exception of Billy Prior, whom Barker invented as both a parallel and a contrast to British soldier-poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

The books, which came to be called the "Regeneration Trilogy," were extremely well received by critics, and in 1995 the final book, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize.

Awards and recognition
In 1983, Barker won the Fawcett Society prize for fiction for Union Street. In 1993 she won the Guardian Fiction Prize for The Eye in the Door, and in 1995 she won the Booker Prize for The Ghost Road. In May 1997, Barker was awarded an honorary degree by the Open University as Doctor of the University, and in 2000, she was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/7/2018.)

Book Reviews
I began to lose faith on the first page of the novel when Briseis describes the retreat of the Lyrnessus women and children, hastening from their homes to seek refuge in the citadel: "…to be walking down the street in broad daylight felt like a holiday." The jarring inauthenticity of this sentence is sadly characteristic of the novel as a whole.… Unfortunately, Barker’s voices are dissonant and unpersuasive. The girls, alas, remain silenced.
Geraldine Brooks - New York Times Book Review

An impressive feat of literary revisionism that should be on the Man Booker longlist.… Why isn’t [it]?… [T]his latest work is an impressive feat of literary revisionism that reminds us that there are as many ways to tell a story as there are people involved.… [T]his is a story about the very real cost of wars waged by men: "the brutal reality of conquest and slavery." In seeing a legend differently, Barker also makes us re-think history.
Independent (UK)

In The Silence of the Girls, [Barker] now gives a voice to the voiceless.… It is not generally known that the omission of Pat Barker’s Regeneration from the 1991 Booker shortlist by the all-male panel of judges was the trigger for the foundation of the Orange (now Women’s) Prize. Barker’s omission from this year’s Booker longlist is a decision equally lamentable, for The Silence of the Girls is a book that will be read in generations to come.
Amanda Craig -  Daily Telegraph (UK)

Its magnificent final section can’t help but make you reflect on the cultural underpinnings of misogyny, the women throughout history who have been told by men to forget their trauma.… You feel you are in the hands of a writer at the height of her powers, her only priority to enlarge the story.
Evening Standard (UK)

Amid the recent slew of rewritings of the great Greek myths and classics, Barker’s stands out for its force of purpose and earthy compassion.… Barker puts a searing twist on The Iliad to show us what the worst fate can be.
Times (UK)

Despite its strong narrative line and transportive scenes of ancient life, however, this novel lacks the lyrical cadences and magical intensity of Madeline Miller’s Circe…. Yet this remains a suspenseful and moving illumination of women’s fates in wartime.
Publishers Weekly

[B]rilliant, beautifully written…. Both lyrical and brutal, Barker's novel is not to savor delicately but rather to be devoured in great bloody gulps. A must read! —Jane Henriksen Baird, formerly at Anchorage P.L., AK
Library Journal

[C]ompelling…. Briseis is flawlessly drawn as Barker wisely avoids the pitfall so many authors stumble into headlong, namely, giving her an anachronistic modern feminist viewpoint…. Barker makes it all convincing and very powerful. Recommended on the highest order.”

Barker writes 47 brisk chapters of smooth sentences; her dialogue, as usual, hums with intelligence. [But] the… prose is awkwardly thick with Briticisms…. A depiction of Achilles' endless grief for Patroclus becomes itself nearly endless.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Briseis’ attitude toward Achilles changes throughout the course of the novel. Did you always find yourself agreeing with her opinion of him? Why or why not?

2. What is most striking about the difference between how Achilles presents himself privately and publicly? In what ways do the two personas merge toward the end of the novel?

3. How did reading The Silence of the Girls impact your understanding of The Illiad? What did this book add to the story of the Trojan War as a whole?

4. There are many visceral and devastating depictions of war and its aftermath in The Silence of the Girls. Which moment struck you as the most heartbreaking or poignant?

5. Honor, both familial and for your city, is a strong theme of The Illiad. How does this theme apply to The Silence of the Girls?

6. Throughout the course of the novel, we see Briseis through many traumatic experiences, including her fall from Queen to concubine. Were you ever surprised by her reactions to these experiences? How would you have reacted to these experiences?

7. The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of The Illiad from one of the minor character’s point of view. If Pat Barker were to write another retelling, whose point of view would you be most interested in reading? How, for instance, might Paris, Helen’s lover, tell his tale?

8. If The Silence of the Girls were written from the point of view of a male minor character, how would that change the story?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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