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Reviewing Pat Barker (2018) 'The Silence of the Girls'

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 7 Sep 2018, 20:05

Pat Barker (2018) The Silence of the Girls London, Hamish Hamilton.

I saw Pat Barker at the Edinburgh Literary Festival on the 26 August where she launched this remarkable book. To tell truth, I had become a rather tired fan of Barker’s work – loving her early novels which showed slices of marginalised lives in the North, and, to my particular delight, focusing on people across a range of age, gender and sexual preference. The Century’s Daughter (now re-named but not for me) remains a personal favourite and, of course, this favoured novelist could only be more loved when she turned to the same range of characters but especially to the discovery of male sexualities: contrasting the refined agonies of Owen and Sassoon with the harder journey of Billy Prior. After the Regeneration Trilogy, I read each novel as they came out but found myself finding those more worthy than exploratory or exciting – perhaps raising my interests in art-history more than in themselves. So I went to this event, the novel unread because still embargoed by the publisher with mixed feeling.

But here was Pat Barker returned to form. She seemed more assured than when I’d seen her before and able to put a blow or two towards some of her less observant reviewers: ‘Some of them say the novel is full of anachronisms – as if I didn’t know or had not intended this’. How did these reviewers read such episodes as this if they thought it to be (in their sniffy classical manner) merely an unintended anachronism – not what either Homer says or ’as it was’ in the ‘real’ Trojan Wars:


He whispers the name, so the men around him won’t hear, and somehow just saying the word hardens suspicion into fact. Instant rage. ‘How the bloody hell, did you get in?’ (256)

Asked also if her novel reflected the ‘Me Too’ movement, she said, ‘I hate the thought of going back to representing women as victims.’ In a novel as full of awareness of the need to recognise and enable female voices and with lots of women falling into victim-status, this was a rich comment.

Now having read the novel I have to applaud the treatment of female voices, from individuals and groups as truly fine. Her female groups use their choric knowledge of maleness and male sexuality as well as some very refined awareness of the strategies of voices operating under limited power to enjoy femaleness and femininity, in a way some readers (perhaps mainly men) will not recognise. But again she manages to do this whilst writing about men and masculinity itself as if she saw it from both outside and inside. And the First World War themes arise in the celebration of male smut and even male sexism, in the trench, battle (and near-football battle) songs.

For me, the delight of this novel that it, like all her novels, has a most refined approach to sexual preference that aligns itself to queer theory rather than to identity politics. It is important in this novel that Barker comes, unlike Agamemnon and some others – if not the meat-for-brains but loving comrade Ajax –to no conclusion that idealises the ‘homosexual’ relationship of Achilles and Patroclus. These men sleep together, know each other’s’ bodies better than they know those of female ‘bed-slaves’ but are never sexually labelled. What we see is a complex love relationship that, mediated by power, personality and other (perhaps some being mythical or visionary) differentials, is the most beautiful relationship of the book.

This is in part in in its co-construction between a third-person narrative which accesses even the voices in Achilles’ head and the complex interplay of distances in Briseis’ slave narrative. We see the relationship grow in this way, even in its reflection in the voice of someone whose loyalties must by necessity shift. But it is also in the prose that characterises the relationship descriptively – both from the men’s own (Chapters 27-28 are pivotal), and the narrator’s voice as they inhabit the liminal space between three domains of consciousness (each of limited facticity). It is the romantic novel queered (as a thing of double-selves and mirror-stages):

Staring at his reflection, Patroclus lowered the helmet gingerly on to his head, adjusted the cheek irons and only then turned away from the mirror to face Achilles. …

… Achilles knew his voice sounded shaky. Turning aside, he looked down at the remaining armour: …. He pretended to find a speck of dirt on one of the greaves and started rubbing it with a soft cloth, pulling back to inspect the area, then breathing on it and rubbing again. With each sweep of the cloth, his face reappeared, features brutalized by the curve of the metal. ‘Do you want my spear?’

To an unsympathetic reader that might feel cloying, but I find it quite beautiful. Of course, you’ll find those contrasts of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ even in a Mill and Boon romance but here they queer the pitch, so that the passage is full of the ‘unsaid’ without it ever being clear that you know what should or could have been said in its place. I don’t sense ‘repressed homosexuality’, I sense something that neither participant has a name for but which belongs solidly to the intercourse of their whole lives:  though nevertheless to simplistic binary thinkers disturbing.

I loved this book and want to read it again – and perhaps again. This is Pat Barker back at her strongest.


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