Novelist Pat Barker on history’s forgotten voices @ Manchester Literature Festival

The crowd broke out into a round of enthusiastic applause as Pat Barker was called up on stage. She walked calmly onto the platform and across to her chair, unfazed by the public marvelling her presence. Dressed comfortably in grey trainers and a loose cardigan, she cut a stark contrast to her stage partner, Kamila Shamsie, who was elegantly clothed in a black suit and white shirt. Yet despite difference in appearance, the women’s shared interests – particularly regarding Ancient Greece – were clear. More obvious still was a cohesion between the pair which hinted that Shamsie was the best possible candidate for leading discussion with Barker.

Barker’s latest novel, The Silence of the Girls, recounts the Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, a former queen who, after the Greeks pillaged her town, became Achilles’s prize – and sex slave. Baker read from the book and explained the epigraph. Taken from Philip Roth, it describes the beginnings of European Literature as something as simple as a quarrel over a girl. Baker highlighted that, although not untrue, the epigraph also reminds us about the other part of European Literature’s beginnings: the silence of the girls being fought over. From this observation, she embarked three to four years ago on the arduous task of writing her newest novel.

Though the novel is closely linked to Homer in terms of plot and style, Barker was adamant the classics are not as inaccessible as widely thought. In fact Barker only read the Iliad for the first time twelve years ago, having herself failed Latin seven times, yet can tackle story-writing based on the ancient tale. It was heart-warming to see such an accomplished writer laugh at herself and her flaws. It’s easy to forget that our favourite authors have them.

Writing a novel set in the past, Barker made clear, is not easy. Among her recommended techniques for overcoming troublesome obstacles used in The Silence of the Girls were evoking bodily sensations, including through English rugby chants, in order to familiarise her audience with the descriptive scenes. Smells, pain, and emotions are experiences felt by all humans, regardless of period and location of birth. She was, however, quick to point out that The Silence of the Girls is not a historical novel, just as the Iliad isn’t historically true. So the questions at hand become: what is the past? How do we retell it?

Barker starts and ends her novel with a description of Achilles – an inherited male narrative of the past that, she made clear, obtrudes even when attempting to voice a female narrative. Many scenes in Barker’s novel were taken from accounts given by war victims of rape, for example from survivors of the violence in the DRC. The fact the novel was published during the #MeToo era was coincidental, but The Silence of the Girls surely denounces not only the violence towards women in Ancient Greece, but also in our time.

Shamsie finished her line of questioning with a thought-provoking question: why do writers keep returning to the Greeks? Barker took a second to gather her thoughts. She settled on this: our constant bombardment with ephemeral news and stories means we yearn for tales that have withstood the test of time. Perhaps better still, we know they will be around long after we are gone. Just as elderly people towards the end of their lives, she reflected, humanity has begun to reflect on its own past. So; are we nearing an end? And if so, an end to what exactly?