Saturday, March 14, 2020

Reading group: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Jenny said it again during our discussion of this book, shortlisted for the Women's Prize: how awful people could think it, that our group so readily trashes praised and revered books. In fact, this book did have one defender in the group, Clare, who had suggested it, and some of the rest of us were less negative than others.

It's basically a retelling of Homer's Iliad, an account of the latter days of the Battle of Troy chiefly from a female viewpoint. Narrator Briseis is a lesser-known queen, captured by the Greeks in their sacking of the city of Lyrnessus, and taken to live in the Greek camp outside Troy as a slave and concubine to the Greek warrior Achilles. In a scenario not unsimilar to that at the heart of the Trojan war, (the Greek attempt to recapture the beautiful Helen, wife of King Menelaus), Briseis becomes a pawn in the tussle between warriors, in this case between the two Greeks Achilles and King Agamemnon, a conflict that affects the course of the battle.

Some of the younger members of the group appreciated and found innovative the authorial stratagem of countering the male-oriented history with a female perspective, though others of us found it a familiar, indeed now somewhat old-fashioned, feminist fictive mode, and Ann pointed out that it wasn't as if it hadn't been done already in Greek literature itself, in Euripedes' play The Trojan Women. And some of us felt that here it was not at all well executed.

Not everyone was familiar with Greek literature, and it was those of us who were who objected most. For Ann and me fundamentally problematic were the tone and linguistic register, which I characterised as bourgeois British housewife, and which to us entirely belied the ethos of the world, and world-view, of ancient Greece. There is a coyness to the language and mentality that is entirely divorced from the powerfully tragic and elemental emotions of the fallen and captured royal women of Euripedes' play, which though imagined by a man seem to me more psychologically authentic. Someone countered that Barker was showing how the women were forced to adjust to life in the Greek camp, and found it perfectly conceivable that they would, but I have to say that the scenes in which the captured women gather made me think of nothing more than seventies meetings of the UK British Housewives' Register (though the younger members of our group didn't know what that was). Witness the following exchange concerning the women's realisation that one of them is suffering physical abuse by her captor:
...the folds of cloth fell open to reveal black fingermarks round her throat. She knew we'd seen. For a long time, nobody spoke.
'Trouble in Paradise?' Uza asked, addressing herself, apparently, to vacant air.
Ritsa shook her head, but it was too late.
Such polite delicacy and coy reluctance do not seem to me at all authentic in the situation in which these women have found themselves, having watched their brothers and sons butchered, and having been taken as slaves, basically raped, some of them sodomised.
Similarly with the following in the same scene:
'I'm amazed [Chryseis is] not pregnant.'
'He prefers the back door,' Ritsa said.
She'd know. Ritsa had a jar of goose fat mixed with crushed roots and herbs that the common women round the campfires relied on if they'd had a particularly rough night. She was too discreet to reveal that Chryseis had been to see her, but the implication was obvious.
As Doug said, why was there a need to use that coy phrase 'the back door'? Why not use the word 'sodomy', which is after all, famously, an Ancient Greek word.

The point may be to avoid abstract language and thus make the situation more concrete and vivid for a modern readership, but it seems to me that if you use language so specifically associated with modern society, and thus drenched in its ethos and connotations, then you are not in fact conjuring the character of the original. ('Oooh, sorry I spoke!' says someone; Yeah, you and me both, thinks someone else, and the whole book is scattered with the construction would'vecould've etc.) Updating something in order to allow a modern audience to relate to it is one thing, but there's no point if in doing so you simply destroy the whole ethos of the original. Someone pointed out that it wasn't even the present day that was always referenced in the updating - for instance, there is a reference to a 'half-crown' - and John said the book reminded him of fifties and sixties films like Cleopatra, overlaid as they were with mid-twentieth-century fashions and obsessions.

Ann also pointed out another way in which the book fails to represent the Greek world view. For the Ancient Greeks the gods were ever-present, meddling full-time in human affairs, and appear as full-blown characters in Greek literature, but there is little sense of them here apart from the emergence from the sea (towards the end) of Achilles' sea-nymph mother with supernatural armour to help him in battle, which sits oddly within the entirely human-occupied rest of the book.

Jenny said she had enjoyed the book but felt that it wasn't well written, and it was generally agreed that another major fault was its mode of telling rather than showing, as in the following passage:
...though I sympathised, almost involuntarily, with [the Greek] men having their wounds stitched up or clawing at their bandages in the intolerable heat, I still hated and despised them all.
It's an ambivalence we have to take on trust; we are given no emotive description to create any somatic sense of it for the reader. It is this that made the book for me very lacking in vividness or ability to engage emotionally.

Doug said that since the idea seems to be to redress the balance, replacing the traditional male viewpoint with that of a woman, he couldn't see the point of sections devoted to Achilles' viewpoint that begin to appear some way into the book. While Briseis's sections are a first-person narrative told in the past tense, these are third person and present tense. No one could see the point of these shifts, except perhaps that it gives the author the chance to portray the male experience of being in the thick of battle, which Ann pointed out is an almost word-for-word imitation of Homer. But, people asked, what is the point of that? I noted that Briseis's narrative voice isn't actually clear. Sometimes it seems to be an interior monologue taking place long after the events described, but at other times it adopts the mode of a dramatic monologue addressed to an unidentified listener unfamiliar with the world and situation she is describing - though as Briseis's tale comes to an end, the battle over, she appears to have been telling her story to someone present there and then, as she embarks with the Greeks for their homeland.

People also pointed out some factual errors: Mark had been struck by a mistake in the portrayal of the weaving that occupies the women: you don't 'spin' on a loom, you weave; and Ann, an expert in such matters, pointed out that the author has Helen stitching the scenes of tapestries by hand (again, tapestries aren't embroidered they're woven), and she didn't think that several of the looms of the size needed would fit into the one tent into which Barker places them. People also wondered how the camp, which lasted for years outside the walls of Troy, could possibly have been supplied with sustenance on land that Barker describes as laid waste by the battle. Where, since the book seemed ostensibly to be about the daily life overlooked in the male histories, were the ships and caravans bringing goods from elsewhere? And where on earth did they get all the fatted bulls they sacrificed? And, asked Jenny, since the whole point of the book seemed to be the quality of life in the camp for the women, and since the whole point of their existence there was to be sex slaves, where were the births that must have inevitably resulted, and would surely have radically coloured the quality of that life?

Basically, we were all left wondering at the rave reviews and accolades that this book has received.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here  

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