Book review – “The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker

I was very excited at the prospect of reading this book. For my sins, I have never read a Pat Barker, not even the Regeneration Trilogy, the third volume of which, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize in 1995. I knew about it, of course, and I think I bought it at some point (though I have moved so many times in my life that I cannot lay my hands on it now!) What I also knew about Pat Barker was that she was born and went to school in Stockton on Tees, a much-neglected part of the country, where I also lived for 12 years and where all my three children were born, and where I still have many friends. She was born to a young single mother but was brought up by her grandparents and lived a stereotypically working-class life until her academic ability set her apart and she was selected to attend grammar school. Barker started writing at a young age but her first novel was not published until she was forty. She is the same age as my mother, who died shortly before I started reading this book a few months ago. I love the ‘Pat Barker story’, feel a deep admiration for her (even though I had not hitherto read any of her books) and felt in some ways a connection with her; the working-class girl made good.

The Silence of the Girls imgThe Silence of the Girls has been critically-acclaimed and was shortlisted for last year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. I really, really wanted to love this book, but I’m afraid I didn’t. It could be that the timing was wrong – December for me was mad busy so I read the book in short bursts over a longish period when I was quite stressed. I don’t think I gave it the time and attention it deserved. But then, neither did it really grab me when perhaps it ought to have done.

The book is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad but from the perspective of some of the women involved, primarily that of Briseis, the wife of King Mynes of Lyrnessus, the Trojan city sacked by the Greeks, led by Achilles. As a reward to the victors, the women of the city are given out to them, essentially to live as their sexual slaves. Briseis is given to Achilles and narrates the story, although it is very much her internal reflection as she plays almost no verbal part in the proceedings she observes – the banquets, the post-battle analysis by Achilles and his fellow warriors, the political machinations, primarily between Achilles and Agamemnon, and the mental strife of Achilles – hence the concept of ‘silence’. Her perspective and her account veer between the lofty, primarily Achilles’ self-doubt, his longing for the reassuring presence of his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, and his conflict with Agamemnon, and the brutal visceral reality of war. At one point, Achilles gives Briseis to Agamemnon, although their relationship is not consummated and because of this Achilles later accepts her back.

Briseis fantasises about escaping, even comes close to achieving it at one point, but she is all too aware of her very precarious position. Even though her life is demeaning and not secure, she will always be an outsider and therefore a threat, she grows strangely close to Achilles, seeing his vulnerability and, eventually, the fragment of care he appears to have for her.

There is something of a fashion for retelling tales from the ancient classics at the moment; Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, is a modern take on the Oedipus myth (I was not mad about that either), and Madeline Miller’s Circe, which I haven’t read, also takes Homeric mythology as its subject. The ideas are interesting, but somehow, for me, The Silence of the Girls just doesn’t quite work. I loved how ‘down and dirty’ it was, giving us perhaps the real insight into life at the time of the Trojan wars, rather different to the heroic presentation we get from Homer. But that ‘realism’ then jarred with, for example, Achilles’ seeking out his mother in the sea. These were parallel universes that collided in the novel, but there was no bridge between them, nothing to help me imagine that great myth and brutal, visceral reality could co-exist.  Perhaps that was a failure of my imagination! I also just could not get inside the author’s head in some of the scenes she created. The small domestic scenes, in Achilles’ quarters, the bedroom, even the hospital wards and the buildings where the women worked, were well-drawn, but I couldn’t quite see the bigger scenes, the ships at anchor, the battles, the idea of going to war as a daily job of work, from which combatants return, minus a few casualties, just did not quite ring true. And this lack of, for me, authenticity, clashed with the hyper-real scenes of blood, guts, mud and sex (for which read rape, because that’s what it was).

I’m not sure where I’m at with this book. Perhaps it was a grand ambition that just didn’t quite come off for me. I will read Regeneration and Union Street. I will delve deeper into Barker’s work, but as an introduction to her, this one, for me, was a bit disappointing.

Recommended if you’re a fan or a classicist.

What did you think of The Silence of the Girls?

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All your literary Christmas viewing right here!

Apologies to overseas readers of this blog, this is very much a UK-focused post.  It’s the shortest day today, the winter solstice, but the hours of darkness remain long for some weeks yet, so I will be spending plenty of time indoors. On winter evenings I love reading, but I also love a bit of telly (just a bit!) – it’s a creative industry and there is some fantastic work out there. I am always on the lookout for literary adaptations. I love to see what Directors do with books and stories, how they draw out the salient events, whether they see the characters in the same way as I do, how they visualise each scene. I also love re-watching some of the classic television adaptations of the past. Apart from the wonderful and vital activity of reading with children, it is generally a solitary hobby so TV and radio can enable you to share the joy with others and can turn it into a family or group experience.

Every year I buy the bumper two-week Christmas edition of the Radio Times and go through it in some detail highlighting shows I want to watch. That sounds a bit sad doesn’t it! I do not enslave myself to the schedules, I just want to make sure I know what’s happening when so I don’t miss something wonderful. I may also choose not to watch as we know many programmes and films come around year after year. Here is my pick of all the literary links I can find in this year’s schedules. I have stuck largely to the free channels.

Family viewing

So much to see!

Plenty of Roald Dahl about: the wonderful film The BFG is on BBC1 on Boxing Day, or on the same day there’s The Witches on ITV. Then there’s the Gene Wilder film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (so different to Johnny Depp) on 30th December on Channel 5.

xmas 18 25For little ones there’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt  on Christmas Eve on Channel 4 (might have to watch that even though mine are now teenagers!). Or the wonderful Paddington movie on 30th December on Channel 4.

Both the classic and new versions of The Jungle Book are on BBC1 this year – the 1967 film on New Year’s Day, and the 2016 version on Christmas Day. And it wouldn’t be Christmas without Mary Poppins on Christmas Eve on BBC1.

Other things you might want to catch are The Snowman (Raymond Briggs) on Channel 4 on Christmas Day, The Railway Children (E Nesbit) on BBC1 on New Year’s Day, Jim Carrey’s The Grinch (Dr Seuss) on ITV on Christmas Eve, the brilliant Robin Williams as Mrs Doubtfire (Anne Fine) on channel 4 on Boxing Day, Watership Down (Richard Adams) on BBC1 on 22 December (tissues at the ready), and Swallows and Amazons (Arthur Ransome) on 2 January on BBC2.

If radio is your thing or if you are travelling, try another Mary Poppins (this time with the wonderful Juliet Stevenson) on Radio 4 Extra on 30 December, or Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology on Radio 4 on Boxing Day.

The Classics

There are always a few adaptations of the classics around at this time of year. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published 175 years ago this week and in its honour you can watch the classic 1951 film Scrooge with Alistair Sim on Channel 5 on Christmas Eve or the 1984 film on Channel 4.

xmas 18 26Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd (one of my favourite Hardy novels) is on BBC2 on 23 December, Jane Austen’s Emma (with Gwyneth Paltrow) is on BBC2 on 28 December, Pride and Prejudice (starring Keira Knightley) is on More4 on Christmas Day, and the brilliant 2011 version of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (the one with Michael Fassbender as Mr Rochester) is on BBC1 on 2 January

The big new six-part adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables starts on BBC1 on 30 December, and there’s a film version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (starring Ben Whishaw), which I wasn’t aware of, on BBC2 on 28 December. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is on ITV1 on 30 December.

Chaucer and Shakespeare

Yes, Geoffrey Chaucer! If like me you’re a fan of Radio 4’s The Archers you’ll be delighted to learn that this year’s Christmas performance of The Canterbury Tales can be heard in full from David and Ruth Archer’s barn in Ambridge on Radio 4 on 29 December.

And for some Shakespeare you can watch Twelfth Night on BBC2, sadly on 23 December and not on 6 January (surely a scheduling oversight!), and Romeo and Juliet on BBC2 on Christmas Eve.

Crime and Thriller

As expected, there is no shortage of Ian Fleming on ITV1 if you’re a James bond fan: Casino Royale on 22 December, Quantum of Solace on Boxing Day, Skyfall on 27 December, and Spectre on New Year’s Eve.

And if Agatha Christie is your thing, there is a bounty of TV for you: the much publicised new series of The ABC Murders (starring John Malkovich as Poirot, and Rupert Grint, aka Ron Weasley of Harry Potter fame) starts on BBC1 on Boxing Day. For a real Christie binge, settle down to BBC2 for New Year’s Eve afternoon and watch Peter Ustinov in Death on the Nile (1978), followed directly by Evil Under the Sun (1982). Or to compare and contrast versions of Murder on the Orient Express watch Albert Finney on ITV3 on New Year’s Day, Kenneth Branagh on 22 December on Sky Thriller or David Suchet on ITV3 on 23 December.

Modern

2016-08-06 07.07.14Finally, for something a little more up to date, you could try The Revenant (Michael Punke) on BBC2 on New Year’s Day – brilliant book, brilliant film, brilliant Leonardo di Caprio. The wonderful Dame Maggie Smith in Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, with Alex Jennings as the author, on BBC2 on Christmas Eve. Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi is on E4 on Boxing DayThe film was not as well-received as the book, but watch it to make up your own mind. Finally, the adaptation of the first book of Elena Ferrante’s fantastic Neapolitan Novels My Brilliant Friend is now available as a box set on Now TV and Sky TV. Hope I can watch that one.

 

Hope there is something there that tickles your fancy. This is me signing off for Christmas, so have a good one and I will be back blogging in 2019.

Thank you to all followers of this blog, particularly anyone who has liked or commented on my posts this year.