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

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).

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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.