13th October, 2018
Durham Town Hall
Review by Yanmin Zhuchen
Pat Barker’s voice rings out – bold, and dynamic – across the Town Hall as she reads the opening passage of The Silence of the Girls. The unapologetic honesty of her words in the novel is mirrored by the brusque and candid tone as she reads, painting a chilling scene of the plight of women in wartime. She will tell you, as Briseis does in her novel, that she has failed in her goal of giving a voice to the silenced. However, one cannot help but feel (as she discusses her work with Dr. Anne Whitehead), that she has succeeded in accomplishing something far more powerful.
Dr. Whitehead begins by noting that many novelists are returning to the classical world in contemporary fiction, all independently of each other, and to great acclaim. Barker’s response is pragmatic and reflective – we often return to the beginning when we feel that we are coming to an end, just as the turn of the century saw a revisiting and memorialising of those in the World War. Such exploration is natural, she claims, but perplexing: what is it we are coming to the end of?
Such an uncompromising, yet compassionate narrative is what Barker is known for in her Regeneration trilogy. Much of the discussion focuses on the physical and mental brutality of war, and Barker stresses that she does not write anything in her book that is not happening in the world today, citing horrors which silenced women face all over the world right now. Despite what many would perceive as the undeniably feminist stance of the novel, Barker insists that it is no more a feminist work than her Regeneration series as she focuses too on the experience of men. In exploring the issue of PTSD during Achilles’ killing spree, she also touches upon the strong bonds formed by men in the wartime. Her onstage description of Patroclus’ passing is even more haunting than in the books, as she imbues the timeless scene with a fresh sense of pain and desperation.
There are, nonetheless, remarkable moments of humour and warmth. As Barker recounts the conversations she has had with men who insist Briseis was in love with her captor, her refreshing candour elicits laughter from the audience. How can she have been in love, she argues, with the man who slaughtered her family and burnt down her home? Her sensitive and pragmatic observations when asked about the death of the novel are just as thought-provoking. For her, our fascination with narrative is what makes us human. It is the circle of storytelling round a campfire – or in this case, the author and audience in a Town Hall.
Barker’s compassionate storytelling in The Silence of the Girls and her astute observations on suffering, silence and storytelling offer an insight not only into the human struggle, but how we might – through this fascination with narrative – reconcile the past with our future.
This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.