The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker – Why Silence Becomes a Woman?

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“Silence becomes a woman” could well be the subtitle of this immense novel. Not that women must be silent, can only be silent, but it is a state of being that may well save their life. If they are young, beautiful and fertile, they may survive. Being the daughter of a King, being married to a King will not guarantee it. For this is War. This is the camp of Achilles, and nothing is guaranteed. Except the death of Achillies. Pat Barker’s novel is the story not of heroes with their petty squabbles, their rules of honour, but the depth of what women suffer in war. Briseis is a woman of the royal family, but she is also a woman of Lyrnessus, under long assault as part of the wars of Troy. Part myth, part human, basic and fearsomely real, this is the story of battles, but more the story of the women who had become the slaves of the victors. Barker has written a tremendous novel of choice, of fate, and the sheer grinding ongoing battle to survive as a woman, adopting or being forced into silence.

Briseis is a queen. From an excellent family, chaperoned and veiled though failing to provide royal sons, she has led a charmed life in royal courts. As the novel opens she is running, moving swiftly through the city as the enemy is at the gates, performing the last duties of a daughter in law as it becomes obvious that the city will fall. As she runs to the roof, she witnesses the slaughter of the men of her family, her husband and any boy who may possibly be able to fight. Some women cannot face being captured, and take another way out, but she has the instinct to survive at whatever the cost. The cost is capture and being a prize, a reward for Achilles, legendary warrior, but with a back story of love denied. The sea, the care of Patroclus, the support of the other women in all their variety, could mean that she survives, but at what cost. This is a world of glory and yet basic suffering, when men can play games with the fate of nations, but silence women in every way. Briseis gives voice to all those who subversively survive, who see more than is possible of what motivates beyond courage.

This is a powerful book, not in its length or pretention, as it is the story of people at all levels. Grief, fear and pain are part of it, and there is more than a little death and basic humanity here. There is, however, much to appreciate in its understanding of what motivates people, how they deal with the challenges of not only the great battles but also the grind of life. It is the story of courage and intelligence, miraculous and human forces, and mainly the story of how a woman can exist in the face of momentous events. The narrative alternates between the voice of Briseis and the story of Achilles, but he is not given a voice, just described. This is a superb book of chaos of war, but also the fate of the people who it, in all its human failings. Barker has written a timeless book, which manages to feel contemporary in its appreciation of people and place, yet draws inspiration from an ancient tale.

I really enjoyed this book, if enjoyed is the right word. I admire its sense of place, and yet it has brilliant insight into people. Do not be out off by its subject matter; it can be grim yet it is also wonderful.

And the Snow it Snoweth every Day – and A Live Life Class

Yes, up here in the Frozen North it is Snowing! (on and off, usually at the exact moment that I need to go out – sigh). Last year we had snow from 17th December to February. Hmm. Ah well, Daughter has turned up in co ordinated snow outfit. Glad to see someone is enjoying it. Huzzah!

Son One has just reminded me to point out that the end of the new Harry Potter film is “very sad”. You have been warned, but I would still like to see it — hint, hint.

Today’s book is also sad, tragic, and a little frightening, but given the subject matter of the First World War, that is hardly surprising. I wrote a while ago about the “Free Thinking” Festival at the Sage. The opening event that I attended was Books at Breakfast, featuring an interview with Pat Barker. She was speaking about her book  Life Class.

I actually read this book quite a while ago, and while I cannot say that I enjoyed it, I found it a fascinating novel of the characters and the time. The picture of the Slade School of Art and its characters was engaging, especially the troubles of the main character, Paul, whose working class credentials stood in sharp contrast to the other students. This was a point emphasised by Pat, who read an extract in which Paul gets mightily fed up with his drawings being rejected, when they would have been praised at home. He is only there because of a legacy from his redoubtable grandmother, briefly mentioned but a believeable character nonetheless. The book is like that; many little remarks, pictures and characters which add to the whole, but do not necessarily develop. I read a review in which the ending is critiscised as not really concluding the story. Having just reread it, I can see the argument, but I think it is a lovely, genuine ending saying a lot about real life and relationships.

This is a book which is difficult to say I ‘enjoyed’ because it paints a realistic picture of life as a medical orderly on the Front line. There is death and injury, and while it is a fictional account, Pat B is so detailed in her research that it sits well alongside any other account that I have read. Paul chooses to paint a picture of the battle which is not for display; it is just the urge to record, to comment, which overcomes him.

Pat B was keen to point out the fact that Paul is the working class character that she sympathizes with, and while it is another novel in which a male dominates, the female characters are still well drawn and important. In contrast with the fictional Paul, Henry Tonks the art teacher at the Slade did exist, and indeed became a vital medical illustrator. And he is the revelation, there is to be another book to follow Life Class, with the character of Tonks featured. This will perhaps answer the points about not quite finishing Life Class fully.  I look forward to reading another first World War novel by this prize winning author, whose Regeneration Trilogy I remember reading with great interest.

Pat B was also very interesting on the subject of her writing, how the first draft of Union Street ended up in the bin only to be rescued by her other half, and how her life experiences added to to her creative writing training to encourage her realistic Northern writing style. She did pass on various hints to aspiring writers, such as writing quickly without editing along the way in order to make the characters live.  Altogether I think that this is a good book, worthwhile in its subject matter, and excellent on the humanity of those involved in a terrible War.