Pat Barker on The Silence of the Girls: ‘The Iliad is myth – the rules for writing historical fiction don’t apply’

In The Human Stain Philip Roth describes the Iliad as the source of European literature. All European literature starts, he says, with a fight. It’s a fight between two great and powerful men: Agamemnon, commander in chief of the Greek army which is laying siege to Troy, and Achilles, the greatest of the Greek fighters. What are they quarrelling about, these “violent, mighty souls?” It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They’re fighting over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war.

I think this passage was the one that finally persuaded me to read the Iliad. I’d always put it off because I thought I’d be bored by the endless lists of shipping and repelled by Homer’s graphic descriptions of wounds and killing; and I was right on both counts, but the poetry, the characters and the conflict more than made up for that.

The poem opens with the quarrel. Both men make long, impassioned speeches that descend into jibes and insults, though physical violence is narrowly averted. Great speeches – and yet what I took away from my first reading was silence, because the girls whose fates are being decided say not a word. I knew I was going to have to write about it one day: about the experience of those silenced girls.

You can sometimes struggle for months to get the voice of a new character, but Briseis’s voice was there from the beginning, as if she was impatient to make herself heard. If I had to stop writing for a time, she was always there waiting for me when I got back. There was none of that bowl-of-cold-porridge feeling you normally get coming back to writing after a break.

Why did I choose Briseis? Because of all the women mentioned in the Iliad, her fate is the most dramatic. She was a married woman, queen of Lyrnessus, when Achilles sacked her city and took her captive with all the other women and girls. A day later, the army awarded her to him as his “prize of honour” for his courage in the battle. He’d killed 60 men in the assault on the city, including Briseis’s husband and all four of her brothers. That night, against her will, she sleeps in Achilles’s bed. Queen to sex slave in less than 48 hours: change doesn’t come any more rapid or dramatic than that.

Briseis has a modern voice, as do all the other women. I think one reviewer was a bit shocked by how modern Helen in particular sounds. Would an elite woman in the late bronze age have sounded like that? Possibly not, but then Helen is so much more than that. She’s not a historical figure at all, none of them is. Agamemnon, Achilles, Hector, Priam, Helen – none of them existed. So the rules for writing historical fiction simply don’t apply. You’re allowed anachronisms, like the English rugby songs that Achilles’s men sing after dinner. And characters from myth can step into our world – history is always then; myth is now – whether now is the England of Christopher Marlowe or 21st-century Britain.

Though Briseis was always going to be the dominant character, I still had to find a way to write about Achilles – a daunting prospect, since he’s one of the great characters of world literature. Many years before, I’d read a book by an American psychiatrist, Jonathan Shay, called Achilles in Vietnam. Shay, in treating Vietnam veterans with PTSD, drew on his knowledge of the Iliad to deepen his understanding of their condition. Shay saw a resemblance between Achilles’s single-minded quest for revenge after the death of his friend Patroclus and the berserker state which many of his patients had experienced – a state in which fear, the instinct for self-preservation, restraint, empathy and compassion all drop away and the man becomes a killing machine. In this frenzy prisoners may be tortured and killed and dead bodies mutilated. This is an accurate description of Achilles’s actions after the death of Patroclus. Once you see Achilles in this way, it becomes a lot easier to connect with him.

In the end my main difficulty was his mother: the sea goddess Thetis. I’d have liked to leave the gods out altogether, but Thetis was a special case because it’s impossible to understand Achilles without her. Achilles is always in a liminal state. He comes from the far north, from the edges of the Greek world, and he occupies a space somewhere between the human and the divine, the land and the sea – and that derives from his mother. And there was another reason she had to be there. When you look back on all the really difficult men you’ve known in your life, it’s surprising how many of them had a goddess for a mother.

Titles come at all stages in the writing of a book. For me it’s often towards the end of the first draft. But it can be much later, leaving publisher and author exchanging lists of possibilities – a mildly demoralising business. Sometimes you get a really good title with no book attached to it at all. The Silence of the Girls came right at the beginning, before I began to write, but it wasn’t universally welcomed, particularly in America. “Girls” is a contentious word when applied to females past the age of puberty and, in many situations, referring to a woman as a girl is an insult. And yet women planning a night out are happy to call themselves girls. In the end the title remained and I was particularly pleased about that when I started work on a sequel: The Women of Troy. The frightened and silenced girls of the first book are well on the way to being formidable women by the time the second book starts.

The Women of Troy is published by Penguin (£18.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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