Pat Barker attempts to retell the Iliad from a woman's perspective

by Lauren Buckeridge / 01 November, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Pat Barker Iliad

Pat Barker: failure to empower. Photo/Alamy

A reworking of Greek poet Homer's classic work has its own Achilles heel.

The Iliad is one of the earliest and most widely read works of Western literature. Even those who have avoided the text will know some of it, especially if they have suffered through 120 minutes of Brad Pitt in Troy.

Written by the Greek poet Homer, it recounts the final weeks of the Trojan War, a battle for Helen of Sparta. The Silence of the Girls, by Booker prize-winning Pat Barker, follows the trend to retell classics legends from a female perspective – that of Briseis, former Queen and Achilles’ prize of war (played in Troy by Rose Byrne).

Disappointingly, Barker restricts Briseis to being a witness to history. Perhaps Barker intended to stay historically accurate – although there are inaccuracies – but this leaves the story lacking purpose. Briseis was a commodity in the Iliad, and it’s not evident she’s been upgraded here.

Flipping a classical tale lends the author endless creative possibilities, yet here, Briseis remains a passive object, and the story becomes disheartening. Even though Briseis is a slave, a tenacious protagonist would be more satisfying.

During the sacking of Briseis’s city, Lyrnessus, we see strong female characters like her cousin Arianna, who jumps to her death to avoid Greek capture, or Briseis’s mother-in-law, who, bedridden, clutches a dagger as she awaits the invaders. Her inability to match the strength displayed by the other female characters makes Achilles outshine her, even if she is the narrator.

Barker details the pathos brilliantly, however, and is Homeric in her raw and touching descriptions of grief and pain. The language makes this book worth reading, but Barker’s failure to empower Briseis proves this novel’s own Achilles heel.

Maddeningly, Briseis’s strength is realised only in the last sentence: “Once, not so long ago, I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story – and failed. Now my own story can begin.” It’s an underwhelming ending which might leave the reader wondering what the point of the story is. If only Briseis had been liberated earlier.

THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS, by Pat Barker (Penguin Random House $37)

This article was first published in the October 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

Inside the close-knit community that lives along the Cromwell-Tarras Rd
102505 2019-02-19 00:00:00Z Travel

Inside the close-knit community that lives along t…

by Mike White

Mike White heads up the Cromwell-Tarras road to merino and wine country.

Read more
The stars of Luther talk about their return in season five
102486 2019-02-18 13:16:40Z Television

The stars of Luther talk about their return in sea…

by The Listener

Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Hermione Norris, Wunmi Mosaku and Michael Smiley answer questions about the future of the dark and disturbing crime drama.

Read more
Vital evidence in Pike River mine disaster missing, say families
102465 2019-02-18 09:22:49Z Planet

Vital evidence in Pike River mine disaster missing…

by RNZ

Some families of Pike River mine victims suspect a piece of vital evidence may have been spirited away by the mining company and lost.

Read more
It's time to empower the mayor and make Auckland liveable again
102432 2019-02-17 00:00:00Z Politics

It's time to empower the mayor and make Auckland l…

by Bill Ralston

Making Auckland a liveable city is an unenviable task, writes Bill Ralston, but it's clear the mayor needs more power.

Read more
Knight star: Sir Hec Busby on his extraordinary life
102328 2019-02-17 00:00:00Z Profiles

Knight star: Sir Hec Busby on his extraordinary li…

by Clare de Lore

Northland kaumātua, master carver, navigator and bridge builder Hec Busby was hoping for “no fuss” when he accepted a knighthood.

Read more
Keira Knightley shines in bodice-ripping period drama Colette
102397 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Movies

Keira Knightley shines in bodice-ripping period dr…

by James Robins

The story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a heroine of French literature, focuses on her early struggles.

Read more
Is barbecued meat bad for your health?
102255 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Is barbecued meat bad for your health?

by Jennifer Bowden

Sizzling meat on the barbecue is the sound and smell of summer, but proceed with caution.

Read more
March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the age of the machine?
102434 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Tech

March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the…

by Jenny Nicholls

Complacently relying on algorithms can lead us over a cliff – literally, in the case of car navigation systems.

Read more