Discovering: The Silence of The Girls by Pat Barker

What I liked first about this novel, was the opening paragraph.

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.

This is the voice of Briseis, a captured Queen, who ‘heard him before I saw him’, because she and the rest of the women from Lyrnessus were shut in the citadel as Achilles attacked their city.

We all knew the men were being pushed back – the fighting that had once been on the beach and around the harbour was now directly under the gates. We could hear shouts, cries, the clash of swords on shields…

The story of the battle for Troy has been told many times. I can’t remember whether I first met Helen, Paris, Agamemnon and the rest of them in a book or a film, or when. Maybe it was textual references in different genres… So many writers have used Helen, Hector or Paris as a reference point for their characters that it’s probable I first heard of them intertextually.

A gauge I use for judging the popularity of an icon is when it turns up in comedy. In his 1948 novel, Uncle Dynamite, PG Wodehouse gave us Lord Ickenham. At one point, he tells his niece, Sally, ‘You look like Helen of Troy after a really good facial.

Perhaps I’ve always known these characters. They could be part of that collective unconscious identified by Carl Jung. It would explain why they feel so familiar, and it excuses me for having lazily accepting the romantic version of what the characters stood for, and therefore, who they were.

On the other hand, the story has too often been served up in segments that present the point of view of a single key character, or event. In those tellings, secondary characters like Briseis were necessary, but disposable components: moments of pathos interspersed between the big dramatic scenes. When the atrocities happened, the focus was too often on the emotions and actions of the key witnesses, rather than the victims.

After all, the women of this time were passive. Values were different. To judge the events around Troy as a love story (as we understand the meaning) is to apply alien motives to the way society was structured.

In presenting this novel largely from a female perspective, Barker re-sets the story.

We women – children too, of course – had been told to go to the citadel… Like all respectable married women, I rarely left my house – though admittedly in my case the house was a palace…

The blood and confusion of battles are not ignored, or reduced. They’re vivid and bloody, but either off-stage, or witnessed from a distance.

…hearing the crash and splinter of wood breaking, I ran up on to the roof, leant over the parapet and saw Greek fighters spilling through a breach in the gates. directly below me, a knot of writhing arms and shoulders advanced an then retreated…

The main part of this story is set in the Greek camp, after Lyrnessus has been sacked. Briseis, restricted by her gender and her tenuous position as the ‘prize’ of the fight, awarded to Achilles, puts a fresh slant on the Greek heroes, even as she accepts her role.

What can I say? He wasn’t cruel. I waited for it – expected it, even… Something in me died that night.

I lay there, hating him, though of course he wasn’t doing anything he didn’t have a perfect right to do. If his prize of honour had been the armour of a great lord he wouldn’t have rested till he’d tried it out: lifted the shield, picked up the sword, assessed its length and weight, slashed it a few times through the air. that’s what he did to me. He tried me out.

Nineteen year old Briseis had been married, at fourteen, to a man she had never met. This is not a story of love. It is about necessity, and survival. Her gender may have placed her in a passive role, but she is an impressively active narrator.

For me, the heart of this story is about levels and layers of bravery. The women of Lyrnessus are slaves, without autonomy. Their husbands, brothers, fathers and sons have been slaughtered. How do they cope? Take Tecmessa, has lived with Ajax for four years.

Ajax had killed her father and her brothers and that same night raped her, and yet she’d grow to love him – or so she said. I wasn’t sure I believed her. Admittedly, I didn’t want to believe her. I found her adjustment to life in the camp threatening – and shameful. But then, she did have a son, and her whole life revolved around the child.

In passages like this, Briseis foregrounds the parts of the Troy story that have fleetingly unsettled me, and made me think about the significance of just who gets to tell any story. No wonder I’ve found myself thinking back and back to it in the four weeks since I read it.

Fragment of a tapestry probably produced through Jean or Pasquier Grenier of Tournai

Date: ca. 1470–90 (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Shades and shadows.

Hi there, me again, posting another blog.  How long have we been meeting like this now?

Are you beginning to feel that you know me?  I hope so.  I’ve told you so much about what I think, do, like and dislike that I sometimes wonder if this blog looks like therapy.

I’ve been using the ‘me’ and ‘I’ approach, known (technically) as writing in the first person.  I’ve created a voice on the page, or perhaps I should say screen, that has its own idiosyncrasies, and hopefully convinced you that I’m a living, fully-rounded person, not just a flat fictional character.

Detail from Humphrey Newton's notebook, 1497

Detail from Humphrey Newton’s notebook, 1497

I’ve been confiding in you, and since I hope I haven’t offered you anything offensive or shocking, you’ve been inclined to believe me, haven’t you?  Might I even claim to have gained some degree of trust?

Well, of course, there was that lapse, last October when I abandoned blogging without warning, and disappeared for several months.  But let’s slide over that for the moment, and concentrate of content. That’s been sound, hasn’t it?

Tricky thing, pinpointing truth.  I was flicking through some old notebooks today, and came across one with some Dennis Potter quotes I’d copied out for a university project, and since one of them has been resonating, I thought I’d share it with you:

…apparently autobiographical forms are very powerful.  It’s…a method of appearing to inhabit one person’s head in a ‘truthful’ way.

The authenticity of the background and the surface detail is therefore guaranteed, as is the emotion, which gives me the licence to introduce and explore emotions that are not mine, that are fiction.

 

Telling stories…

Where do I start? If only my ideas were straightforward.  Instead, here I am scratching my head and trying to unravel too many different lines of thought.

‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on until you come to the end: then stop.’

Chapter XII, Alice in Wonderland

That seems like sound advice.  It’s certainly simple.

From, Emily Gertrude Thomson adaption of Alice In Wonderland.

From, Emily Gertrude Thomson’s adaption of Alice In Wonderland.

So, perhaps I’ll start with the source of my inspiration for this week’s ramble.  Aptly enough (says she, with wide eyed disingenuous simplicity) it was the opening lines of a novel, Behind the Scenes at The Museum, by Kate Atkinson.

I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall.  The clock once belonged to my great-grandmother (a woman called Alice) and its tired chime counts me into the world.  I’m begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith’s Best Bitter he has drunk in the Punch Bowl with his friends, Walter and Bernard Belling.

Who exists?  Why Ruby Lennox, a narrator who has such an all-seeing god-like view of events that from the moment her life begins, she knows everything about her family.  I’m not just talking about her great-grandmother’s clock here, look at what Ruby knows about her father’s movements prior to this conception:  what he drank, where he was and who he was with.  To top that off, she also knows that his sleep is dreamless. If you’ve ever wondered what an omniscient narrator can do, here’s a good example.

Trouble is, Ruby’s not exactly a standard example of omniscience, because she’s a central character in the story.  In fact she’s also a first person narrator, recounting the events of her life, like Tristram Shandy:

‘I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, minded what they were about when they begot me.

and David Copperfield (‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life…’) .

Far from god-like, Ruby’s as fallible as the rest of us, with opinions, prejudices, likes and dislikes that colour the way she sees and recalls her life.

“‘Bunty’ doesn’t seem like a very grown-up name to me – would I be better off with a mother with a different name?”

So, engaging as her story is, there’s always room for a little bit of doubt about what we’re reading.  We want to trust her.  After all, the narrator’s role is to show us the way in the story.  That role of route-master can include everything from placing only relevant story scenes in front of us, to directing what angle we view them from and even, making sure we read it as the narrator wishes us to.  It’s easy to forget how much manipulation is taking place when we’re speeding our way down the page.

Okay, this is fiction, and in the world of fantasy, especially this kind of magical-realist text, anything can happen.  We could just accept and enjoy it as comic exaggeration.  But this story’s also littered with misdirection.  Our narrator seems to suggest that fictional characters existed in the same way as historical figures, ‘Robinson Crusoe, that other great hero, is also a native son of this city.’  She’s also under the impression that her birth is so important an event that ,’outside the window, a dawn chorus is heralding my own arrival.’

You could call that ego, perhaps.  She wouldn’t be the only one to believe the world revolves around herself.  The thing is, once we see that, shouldn’t we be a bit wary of taking her at face value?