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The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

On my recent flight to Amsterdam I had intended to read another novel altogether. But I left that book in my suitcase by mistake, and it travelled in the aeroplane hold. So I found myself in the airport departures lounge with nothing to read. This was a small provincial airport with a limited branch of WH Smith. The Silence of the Girls  was the only book there that I had any interest in. It turned out to be ideal material for the short flight, and perfect bedtime reading for the next three nights. Amsterdam was as lovely as ever.

The Silence of the Girls  by Pat Barker

The story of the final days of the Trojan wars is told by Briseis, a young Trojan woman whose city is sacked. She had been married to a king but when the Greeks defeat the city and her husband is killed she becomes Achilles’s prize. 

Briseis is beautiful, and she becomes the bed-slave of the heroic fighter. Although she has become a slave she is aware of the politics of the Greek camp, the squabbling between the various kings, those considered to have prowess on the field of battle, and those who are ridiculed for staying behind the lines. 

Achilles and Agamemnon develop a feud when plague breaks out in the camp. Both men are proud and find it hard to deal with each other. In order to end the plague Agamemnon must give up his slave girl, but in return he demands to be awarded Briseis. And so she is turned over to another camp, but the feud is not ended. Achilles refuses to fight.

Eventually Achilles allows his great friend Patroclus to lead his men in his place and wearing his armour, and when he is killed Achilles swears to avenge him with Hector’s blood. And when he slays Hector the war begins to come to an end. Many men are dead, the Greeks prepare to return home after ten years of war. For the women nothing is over. They must accompany their new owners, accept their new status, and continue to be treated as the spoils of war.

Feminism in The Silence of the Girls

Women’s voices, like those of the defeated, are rarely heard in history. When you are women and defeated you can only expect silence. Pat Barker has taken this situation and turned it on its head. 

But she found that although most of the novel is narrated by Briseis and is the story of the women in the Greek camp, from about half way through to tell Achilles’s story she presents several sections in the third person. And in the second half of the novel it does seem that it is Achilles’s story. And for Briseis it has to be as her life and her future depend on his decisions and his actions. That he sees her as more of a person as his death approaches does not change that reality.

We do read a great deal about the lives of the women, first as they wait for their city to fall to the Greeks and then in the camp of their captors. There is rape, weaving (so much weaving), food preparation and serving, pregnancy, nursing the sick and wounded and even some bonds of affection emerge. The description of such women’s activities is not included in Homer’s Iliad, nor in Euripides’s The Trojan Women

And …

I wish the title had been different, The Silence of the Trojan Women, or even The Silence of the Women. The word ‘girl’ has been overused in titles recently. And although there are girls in this story, and awful things happen to them, mostly the story is concerned with the adults, who are women.

The story of the Trojan War is a compelling one. It lasted so long, it seemed to have such a romantic origin (Paris and Helen’s love), many Greek and Trojan heroes fought in it, and even the gods intervened. Pat Barker tells a good story in a very readable way. 

Short-listed for the Women’s Fiction Prize 2019. The winner will be announced on 5thJune.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (2018) Penguin 325pp

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

Writers’ Residential

Three writers are collaborating on a book. How does that work? They began in 2014 and send perhaps twenty or thirty emails to each other every week. And they must meet two or three times each year to keep the processes of writing on track and in synchronicity. They must write about 70,000 words, on the topic they indicated to the publisher, and in a coherent manner that adds to the world’s knowledge of the subject. Simples! [Add your own ironic Meerkat cheek squeak.]

Our book is non-fiction. It is concerned with the effects of people living longer and it challenges ageist assumptions and exclusionary practices. We show how the population changes concern everyone, partly because everyone who survives will get old, but also because society, families and local communities need to adjust attitudes and practices.

Postcards from the Look at Me! project: www.representing-ageing.com

Postcards from the Look at Me! project: www.representing-ageing.com

We are due to deliver the completed manuscript to the publisher in early March. We have just finished our final three-day residential in Devon. I was not anticipating that the final stretch would feel any more creative than a slog. But our three days made us energised and keen to get on with our allocated tasks. What on earth happened?

Looking after ourselves

230 StoverWe haven’t lived this long without knowing that caring for ourselves is very important. We are good at celebrating successes, knowing that the Prosecco shortage may be due to our frequent celebrations. We kept ourselves warm, in front of the open fire in the evenings and enjoyed good food. We got some some fresh air and exercise, on this occasion a walk round the lake in Stover Park, and kept good hours.

Our agenda

We had planned for these days, exchanging ideas for our agenda by email from early December. The key thing about this meeting was that we had received feedback from three readers on all 14 chapters. We knew they would say the writing needs to become more consistent. But we wanted to explore how to do that as well as address their other observations and comments. And we needed to plan everything to be done before sending our manuscript to the publisher. We began with a list of all the things to be done and began each day by setting the day’s timetable.

230 TT

Key work on vision

Our publisher had asked us to sharpen up one particular aspect of the book: what needs to change. We decided to use the end of every chapter to do this as well as keeping it in mind as we revise the chapters. And we had planned a short final chapter to encapsulate all that. This became the key work of the residential, achieved jointly.

Mostly we talk, go through our many pages, make notes, but sometimes we write together. We do this with one writer at the keyboard, and dictation by the others, or the keyboarder reading aloud and adjusting and amending, sentence by sentence, over and over again. Eileen and Caroline have worked like this before, but it is much easier with two than three. But in the end we cold not see the joins and were inspired by our own vision of a future in which ageing is not assumed to be a problem.

We have found on previous occasions that the idea of a manifesto is helpful, even if it doesn’t appear in the book in this form. Creating a statement of what the book is about is a dynamic or iterative process. Working on the manifesto, shapes the book and the writing of the chapters moves us towards the manifesto in its strongest form. Ours has emerged gradually over the two years of writing,

I remind myself that I should have trusted the process. I realised how important our vision has become when I found myself describing the book differently the following day. ‘What are you writing?’ I was asked. ‘It’s a book arguing that demographic changes do not need to be seen as problematic and how we can achieve this.’ It sounded good to me, even if the words were not what I would have said even a week ago.

Creating excitement and new stuff from dialogue

Working collaboratively with other writers helps achieve these new understandings. It is a key process in writing together. Through dialogue everyone participates and you end up in a different place, one you would not have arrived at if you had been writing alone. And usually where you arrive is at a better understanding of what we want to say and why. This is sometimes called interthinking.

Try it some time. You need tact, patience, trust and an open mind to do it. And you get better the more you do it. Reviewing the process from time to time also helps.

That tricky and elusive title

The publisher wanted us to get to a better title. We have the one from when we proposed the book: Ageing Now. And a revision as a result of an earlier writing session: Living Longer Together. These are not considered satisfactory by the publisher. But she needs it now for the American catalogue. The three of us have been brainstorming away since December when she told us we would need to do this. We had asked her for suggestions, knowing that our previous publisher had suggested the title that was exactly right: Retiring with Attitude. No luck this time.

101 RWA coverBut we tried several ways to agree a title, including looking at the final chapter, our vision. In the end we sent her our two least bad titles. I expect she will favour a variation of one of them. I would have liked to give you the title, so you could run to your bookseller and reserve a copy of this book, but I can’t.

I think we have found the title harder than any other single aspect of the writing of this book.

Future posts about writing this book together

We plan to post every month about the progress towards publication in September. We think that there are some good things to share with other writers: how we write together, the stages towards publication, working with feedback, marketing and so on. And here’s some advice for free – keep celebrating and laughing together, even if it results in a celebratory selfie that casts doubt on the authors’ sanity.

230 3 writers

From left to right: Eileen Carnell, Caroline Lodge and Marianne Coleman.

Related posts

On the tricky topic of titles on this blog in November 2015

Published today: what our editors did for us in July 2014

 

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Filed under Books, Learning, Publishing our book, Writing