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The Manchester Literature Festival Blog

Review: Pat Barker in conversation

Aisha Sodawala enjoys Pat Barker discussing her latest novel The Silence of the Girls.

Kamila Shamsie was in conversation with Pat Barker in this event where Pat talked about her enthralling retelling of Homer’s The Iliad from the perspective of Briseis.

On Pat’s first reading of The Iliad she not only saw these mighty violent souls quarrelling, she also saw who they were quarrelling about:


But that wasn’t what she found interesting;“These mighty violent souls were quarrelling over women, and the women didn’t say a word.”The silence of the girls at the beginning of Homer’s epic poem prompted her to write her latest novel; “I wanted to fill that silence.” Frankly, this voice couldn’t have come at a better time. Pat, although having already written the novel before the #metoo campaign gained traction, said that as she read through the final manuscript she was surprised that her novel was “starting to sound quite topical”.

Kamila then asked whether Pat’s novel was a homage to Homer’s text or if she was in conversation with Homer. Pat replied,“It’s difficult to get the experience of women into epic poetry because it is the poetry of heroes and, in that time, heroes weren’t women. So yes, it was a conversation”. This was something I found particularly interesting, Pat not only encapsulated the essence of Homer’s story within her own, but she also wove her own thoughts and views into the novel, thus reinforcing her status as an incredible author.

The violent themes prevalent in Pat’s earlier work are still very present in this novel, but jarringly the majority of the violence in The Silence of the Girls concerns what happens behind closed doors. Pat stated that nearly all the sex was “almost always usually rape”. Not only are these scenes shocking to readers but they also reinforce the unfair treatment of women within Greek society. Pat’s somewhat negative realism about the treatment of women and the lack of feminine power within Homer’s text was also mentioned when answering a question about why her novel begins with Briseis talking about Achilles; “I tried to make it her story but it is his story”.Pat’s novel may be from a different perspective but it is the same story. The story doesn’t change.