With these novels, Pat Barker and Michael Hughes revive the long and fertile tradition of retelling Homer’s great epic poems. The Silence of The Girls and Country deliver new and original recitations of ‘The Iliad’ — the final weeks of the Trojan War — in two different but very satisfying and successful ways.
Barker tells the story of the stand-off between the Greek commander, Agamemnon, and his greatest warrior, Achilles, from the point of view of Briseis — the Trojan queen who was granted to Achilles by the army as a ‘prize’, then claimed by Agamemnon in recompense for the loss of another woman slave, Chryseis.
Barker’s opening lines are vivid, setting the tone: ‘Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles … we never called him any of those things: we called him ‘the butcher’.’ We know the butcher’s character and the nature of the book by the end of Chapter 2, when, we are told (in Briseis’ voice) how he inspected ‘the goods’ (her) in front of the massed army and announced: ‘Cheers, lads. She’ll do.’ And ‘everyone, every single man in that vast arena, laughed.’
Hughes brings the war to the final days of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, in 1996, when the top IRA gunman (the Border Sniper), Achill (so called because his father came from the Mayo island), goes on strike because his Commanding Officer, Pig, claims Achill’s woman, Brigid, as his own.
Hughes has to contort some names (Fort William becomes Fort Illiam) and plot elements to match the exigencies of themes such as honour, religion, slavery and warrior/royal behaviour in the 8th century pre-Christian Mediterranean world. But he does this so cleverly and audaciously that the reader goes with him — for the sheer fun of it, if nothing else.
In a way, his colloqualised retelling (a tour de force of voice, reminiscent of the heights achieve by Patrick McCabe in The Butcher Boy) is truer to the hexameter rhythms of the original poem (in its mishmash of local dialects at the time). He even nods, ambitiously, to the famous Greek chorus/refrain in some formally repetitive and drawn-out passages.
Nor does the relocation in time and place detract from the story’s inherent and essential dark truths. After all, Homer did say to Patrick Kavanagh (from just over the border): ‘I made the Iliad from such/A local row.’ The miserable dirge of the bomb and bullet are etched deeper in our current sensibilities of violence and loss than the sword and shield. Male fury and brutality drip from Country’s pages.
Barker’s book is beautifully written, showing the depth and poise of a true mistress of her craft at the peak of her powers. The characterisations and voices ring brilliantly true. Her writing is fluid and apparently effortless, displaying at times an astonishing élan. Her language, despite using the original time of the war, is of the present. Achilles’ army sings: ‘Why was he born so beautiful?/Why was he born at all? He’s no fucking use to anyone! He’s no fucking use at all!’ Briseis’s sensibilities are also of our time: she refers to the women’s quarters as a rape camp.
The architecture and framing of her book are perfection. Her closing fade out, with the ‘sacrifice’ of the virgin Polyxena to appease the ghost of Achilles, achieves an exquisite sense of circularity. It also brings the whole resolve of Briseis’ retelling into focus. Putting Achilles’ death off-stage another masterstroke — silencing his male presence.
The arrival of Barker’s book into the age of #metoo and post-Weinstein is as timely as it is vital. The ‘girls’ will no longer be as silent as lambs to the consequences of toxic masculinity (war being its ugliest manifestation). Rape culture can no longer be tolerated. The time of history is over. The time of her story is now.
Both books illustrate the idiocy of wars decided by distant patriarchies, with their petty self-entitled concerns of pride, religion and male-construed nationalism. Both books intensely reassert the brutal, timeless realities of such decisions for the true victims of those wars.
Hamish Hamilton, £18.99
John Murray, £12.99