Chair of the Judges, Professor Kate Williams, said: “It’s a fantastic shortlist; exciting, vibrant, adventurous. We fell totally in love with these books and the amazing worlds they created. These books are fiction at its best – brilliant, courageous and utterly captivating.”
Shortlisted: Best Novel of the Year
The Costa Judges: ‘Blistering, important, topical – an addictive read.’
This brings the grit and gristle of Pat Barker’s wartime fiction to the Bronze Age, revisiting Homer’s Iliad through the eyes of Briseis, a Trojan queen squabbled over by the Greek captors who sack her city. The brazenly modern dialogue makes it clear that scholarly exactitude is hardly the main point of this lesson in the value of reading between the lines. The stunning simplicity of Barker’s concept, and the vigour of her execution, will ensure that this novel is read for generations to come.
Although it is densely imagined and beautifully written, these things mount up to strand the book in an uncomfortable no-man’s-land...Barker has always written brilliantly about war, about battles and about the interior lives of often nameless fighting men. The Regeneration trilogy left her readers living and breathing alongside her battered, broken soldiers. The Silence of the Girls lacks some of the potency of those novels, because of the strangely clunky anachronisms.
In her stunning new novel, Pat Barker goes back to one of the most famous wars of all, telling the story of the siege of Troy from the point of view of the local women taken by the Greek forces...Barker’s experience of writing about military life in her earlier novels shines through in the depiction of the Greek forces; in the second part of the book, we begin to see the events from Achilles’s point of view, the “tedious, bloody grind” and “shining moment[s] when the din of battle fades and your body’s a rod connecting earth and sky”. The men are dehumanized by the wars they have created. This is primarily a book about what war does to women, but Barker examines what it does to men too. Angry, thoughtful, sad, deeply humane and compulsively readable, The Silence of the Girls shows that 36 years after her first novel was published, Barker is a writer at the peak of her powers.
Barker’s experience of writing about military life in her earlier novels shines through in the depiction of the Greek forces; in the second part of the book, we begin to see the events from Achilles’s point of view, the “tedious, bloody grind” and “shining moment[s] when the din of battle fades and your body’s a rod connecting earth and sky”. The men are dehumanized by the wars they have created. This is primarily a book about what war does to women, but Barker examines what it does to men too. Angry, thoughtful, sad, deeply humane and compulsively readable, The Silence of the Girls shows that 36 years after her first novel was published, Barker is a writer at the peak of her powers.
From opening moments tense with urgency (Achilles’s battle cry ringing round the walls of the doomed city, women and children fleeing to its citadel), menace and fear predominate. Terror rarely slackens its grip.... The conviction with which Barker handles all this wavers in scenes tracing Achilles’s belligerence back to his abandonment in infancy by his sea-goddess mother or showing Hector’s defiled corpse miraculously restored to freshness by the gods. But when it comes to subverting myths of military glamour, The Silence of the Girls is an assured triumph.
Why isn’t Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls on this year’s Man Booker longlist? There are always going to be contentious omissions, I know, but Barker’s not only a veteran – she won in 1995 for The Ghost Road, the final volume of her magnificent First World War-set Regeneration trilogy – this latest work is an impressive feat of literary revisionism that reminds us that there are as many ways to tell a story as there are people involved. It’s The Iliad as seen through the eyes of 19-year-old Briseis, the Queen of Lyrnessus who’s taken as Achilles’s “bed-girl”, his “prize of honour” for mass slaughter.
This is an important, powerful, memorable book that invites us to look differently not only at The Iliad but at our own ways of telling stories about the past and the present, and at how anger and hatred play out in our societies. “The defeated go down in history and disappear, and their stories die with them.” Barker’s novel is an invitation to tell those forgotten stories, and to listen for voices silenced by history and power.
Amid the recent slew of rewritings of the great Greek myths and classics, Barker’s stands out for its forcefulness of purpose and earthy compassion. She strips away any romanticism about the plight of Briseis, much as Margaret Atwood achieved in The Penelopiad, which told the tale of the female slaves Odysseus killed on his return home... There are enough slips into old-fashioned British vernacular...to jolt you into seeing something of the universality of their plight... Barker puts a searing twist on The Iliad to show us what that “worst fate” can be.
In Barker’s rendition, she is the central narrative voice and a key witness to action off the battlefield. Through Briseis we are privy to the thoughts and feelings of the captured women, many of them still young girls: Tecmessa, Ajax’s “prize”; Chryseis, the daughter of a priest and now Agamemnon’s slave; Iphis, slave of Patroclus. Through their eyes we see the Greek encampment as a “rape camp”. We hear them at their looms, in the laundries and kitchens, tending the sick and dying, laying out the dead, breast-feeding babies born to their captors, trading gossip about the sexual proclivities of their masters. The camp’s riches and squalor are depicted with clear-eyed precision, from the “bedcovers embroidered with gold and silver thread” to the stinking latrines “covered in a pelt of black buzzing flies”.