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Tag: Pat Barker


Pat Barker is recognised for her perceptive writing about war. Indeed, some time ago I wrote a post about her World War I novel, Regeneration.


The Silence of the Girls goes much further back in history — to the time of the Trojan Wars. It has been labelled a feminist Iliad. Mainly through the eyes of Briseis, we experience the cost of war to women — women who survive as slaves when men destroy their cities and kill their brothers, fathers and children.

SILENCE OF GIRLS Briseis Given Back to Achilles, Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens: Briseis is given to Achilles 

Pat Barker has taken what we know of that time and looked at it through a different lens — how would the women have felt when, for example, they witness the teenage daughter of Priam and Hecuba being gagged and killed as a sacrifice? How did Briseis feel when she was handed over as an ‘award’ to Achilles after his army had sacked her city, Lyrnessus? Briseis says, ‘I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers’.

The characters in this book speak in 21st century English, and the women, particularly Briseis have an assurance that one might not expect of someone kept in subjugation. At first I balked at the language. For example, Nestor and Achilles are talking: ‘Nestor smiled and shook his head. “You won’t leave. Whatever else you are, you’re not a deserter.”

“I don’t see it as desertion. This isn’t my war.”

“You were keen enough to get into it.”

“I was seventeen.” Achilles leant forward. “Look, what he did today was totally outrageous, everybody knew it, and there wasn’t one voice raised against it.”

“Mine was. Then, and later.”

“So now I just think: Fuck it. He wants Troy, he can take Troy — without me. Except we both know he can’t.”‘

I realised, firstly, that we have no idea how people spoke then, so why try to make something up? And then, more importantly, it seemed that the use of 21st century English provides a sense of universality. This is a book about women and war — women’s relationships with men, not particularly about Ancient Greece. One of the most poignant parts of the book is where, debilitated by age and unarmed, Priam makes his way alone through the enemy camp to plead with Achilles for the mutilated body of his son Hector. Briseis makes sure that Hector’s body is covered with a linen sheet and, in spite of the inhumanely savage way the son’s body has been treated, in Priam’s presence, there is a kind of reverence and respect for the father’s wishes, even though he is the enemy. These things are timeless.

silence of girls Tiepolo Eurybates and Talthybius lead Briseis to Agamemnon

Tiepolo: Eurybates and Talthybius lead Briseis to Agamemnon







More metaphors

Here are some more metaphors and phrases I’ve discovered in my reading:

Leaning forward into Bastien’s breath Alan Hollinghurst: The Sparsholt Affair, p.121
The soft jolt of happiness Alan Hollinghurst: The Sparsholt Affair, p.179
The moment … to act moved stiflingly closer Alan Hollinghurst: The Sparsholt Affair, p.222
Later in the night, spooned into Suzy’s back Richard Flanagan: First Person, p.43
His gaze skidding around the room Richard Flanagan: First Person, p.128
Describing musical improvisation: to cast off from the notated shores Virginia Lloyd: Girls at the Piano, p.160
That springtime fragment of a boy’s youth Michael Ondaatje: Warlight p.44
Expressionless as royalty Michael Ondaatje: Warlight p.86
The howl of a train Michael Ondaatje: Warlight p.230
My maths was rusting up Ian McEwan: Enduring Love p.76
Astonishment loosens the hinge of her jaw Ian McEwan: Enduring Love p.83
You are in love, at a point where pride and apprehension scuffle within you Julian Barnes: A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters p.238
History just burps, and we taste again that raw-onion sandwich it swallowed centuries ago Julian Barnes: A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters p.241
He was dying, just a whisper of himself. Germaine Greer on the death of Harry Hooton, cited in Elizabeth Kleinhenz: Germaine, p.75
Brooding like a storm Toni Jordan: The Fragments, p.20
An underlying spine of melody Toni Jordan: The Fragments, p.203

It’s been a while since I’ve added some favourite ‘metaphors’ (or great descriptions) to this section. Lately I’ve been very busy with a writing class but have read some great books, so here are some more metaphors/ descriptions that I’d like to share:

Pale amniotic light Simon Mawer: The Glass Room, p. 400
His gaze slid away Ian McEwan: The Children Act, p.160
The whole landscape is holding its breath Helen Garner: True Stories, p.95
The house hunches itself in the deepening dark Helen Garner: True Stories, p.97
A shadow of betrayal Jane Harper: The Lost Man, p. 178
Brutal heat Jane Harper: The Lost Man, p.323
Dead Hector: I spread the linen sheet gently over his poor ruined face and tiptoed away, leaving him alone under the indifferent stars. Pat Barker: The Silence of the Girls, p.227
After Achilles’ death: the great roar of absence Pat Barker: The Silence of the Girls, p.308
The cicadas stitch their song into the day Carrie Tiffany: Exploded View, p.167
I felt a rope of fear uncoil in my stomach Esi Edugyan: Washington Black, p.70
His face vacant as a freshly washed plate Esi Edugyan: Washington Black, p.387
He changed his clothes and grunted off to his shed Jen Hutchison: Motherling, p. 28
An unmoving clotted silence Stanislaw Lem: Solaris, p.188
As quiet as cancer Adam Roberts: The Snow, p. 1
A big 600 page thudder of a book Adam Roberts: The Snow, p. 202
Sheep dog my thoughts back into their pen Adam Roberts: The Snow, p. 227
Amplified silence Adam Roberts: The Snow, p. 234


Pat Barker on World War I

Pat Barker is a British writer whose trilogy of novels examines World War I. The first book in the trilogy, Regeneration, was short-listed for the Booker Prize and chosen by The New York Times as one of the four best novels of 1992. The second book, The Eye in the Door, won The Guardian Fiction Prize and the third book, The Ghost Road won the 1995 Booker Prize.

Regeneration is a masterful blending of fiction and non fiction. It is set mainly in Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, where soldiers were sent to recover from the effects of nerve gas and other psychological traumas resulting from ‘shell shock’. The characters are based on actual people. The book starts when the poet Siegfried Sassoon published his declaration in July 1917, stating his belief that the war was being prolonged deliberately as a weapon of aggression and conquest, rather than the original intent (or that which the fighting soldiers understood) as a means of defence and liberation. We are taken into the hospital and get some insight into the horrors of the mental illnesses that beset these soldiers – some idea of what they had witnessed and lived with in the trenches. Most of the story is told from the viewpoint of the progressive Dr Rivers who, unusual for the time, empathises with his patients. Around him, treatments almost as horrific as the war experience are practised, particularly  by Dr Yealland who locked his patients in a room for hours and subjected them to high voltage electric ‘therapy’. Sassoon meets Wilfred Owen and advises him on some of his poetry – they discuss Anthem for Doomed Youth – and, although it is not covered in this story, Owen was ‘doomed’ and killed just before the end of the war. The book has been researched thoroughly – at the end, reference is made to papers written by Rivers and (separately) Yealland, whose methods seem to be a nineteenth century view imposed upon early twentieth century equipment. Once more, the utter horror of that war lives on.


W.H. Rivers at Craiglockhart Hospital

The Eye in the Door is the second part of the trilogy. Again, the empathic psychiatrist W. Rivers is central, but in this book he is a little less centre stage. And again, most of the characters are based on real people. Fiction enables Barker to make these people more alive than they might have been in an accurate historical account. We can get closer to them – we can know what they are thinking and we can almost live their horrific experiences of being at the front: holding an eye that had belonged to an injured companion, shooting a dearly-loved comrade because there was no way he could be pulled out of treacherous mud. One main interest in this book is the fugue state, whereby a sufferer has long periods of amnesia during which, it seems to others, he is quite lucid. A second interest is the contemporary campaign against homosexual men – ‘sodomites’. It’s all terribly early 20th century British, which is a great strength, and we see some of the life of the working class, often not documented in the literature about that time.

The novel takes place during 1918 and finishes before the war ends. Indeed, Britain is in a bad way. The main character is Billy Prior, who works in Intelligence and suffers from fugue states. Rivers is his doctor – and we see how Rivers respects Prior’s intellect and is deeply interested in Prior the person, as he is in his other patients, notably Siegfried Sassoon. Rivers himself seems to be torn between pacifism and patriotism – he is ‘curing’ these men so that they can go back to the manslaughter of the front. Rivers suggests that a state where a person has dual personalities is quite natural – the face put on to carry out duty versus the compassionate human being.

The eye in the door is, literally, an eye on a prison door, which Prior sees when he visits an inmate. That probing eye watches even when the prisoner defecates. And, for me, the ‘eye’ was more generally applicable, suggesting constant scrutiny of clandestine activities.

One character who makes a brief appearance is Winston Churchill. I did feel that Pat Barker must have come across this information and enjoyed finding a way to use it. Churchill, with Edward Marsh (a poet and civil servant known to ‘have sympathies’ with the homosexual community) spent an entire afternoon beating each other’s buttocks with plaited birch. Hmm – was Churchill gay?

This book shows graphically the horror of World War I. No matter how much one reads, how many pictures one sees, it was a hideous and brutal experience that is almost beyond imagination. The Eye in the Door, through fiction, manages to tell us things that maybe the participants, in that still rather laced up British society, might not have dared to say.

I look forward to reading The Ghost Road, the third book of the trilogy.

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