The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker; Country by Michael Hughes – reviews

Pat Barker’s gripping contemporary take on The Iliad and Michael Hughes’s resetting of the tale during the Troubles offer different pleasures

In The Iliad, the Greek siege of Troy runs aground when Agamemnon, the general behind the attack, falls out with his most prized warrior, Achilles, over which of them best deserves the beautiful young Trojan queen Briseis as a spoil of war.

The question of her view on the matter – lost amid the testosterone – sets Pat Barker’s imagination ablaze in The Silence of the Girls, a stunning return to form after a series of so-so novels on her more usual beat of wartime Britain.

“Vivid” doesn’t begin to get near the grisly intensity of how Barker revisits Homer’s epic through Briseis’s eyes as she’s held in a plague-ridden prison camp. For her, the story of war isn’t a chronicle of spear-thrusts and arrow-shots, but one of enslaved women gang-raped in sight of their children and put to work washing their captors’ battle-bloodied rags in pails of urine, using balms of goose fat and crushed herbs to salve the sting of rough nights with their owners.

The drama of the novel turns on Briseis’s fight for dignity, as Achilles – having slaughtered her entire family – picks her as his personal trophy from a humiliating parade of captives: “A hand, fingertips gritty with sand, seized hold of my chin and turned my head from side to side... ‘Cheers, lads,’ he said. ‘She’ll do.’”

Not everyone will take to Barker’s plain speaking. “Look, what he did today was totally outrageous,” sulks Achilles when Agamemnon takes Briseis for himself. “So now, I just think: Fuck it.” But as with the abrasive detail, such talk is key to her project of debunking the legend. Discussing how Achilles’s mother reputedly dunked him by the heel into the river Styx to make him invincible, Briseis scoffs: “Invulnerable to wounds? His whole body was a mass of scars. Believe me, I do know.”

Reading this gruesome, gripping novel feels like you’re being let in on The Iliad’s secret history. No swords-and-sorcery romp, it speaks (I don’t think accidentally) to the present, post-Weinstein moment of myth-busting about male power. When Briseis wonders how Achilles might be viewed by the people of “unimaginably distant times” – that’s us – it’s hard not to feel guilty for never previously having listened properly: “They won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery ... They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp.”

If Barker brings a 21st-century sensibility to antiquity, Michael Hughes’s Country goes the other way, using The Iliad to structure the page-turning tale of an IRA unit holed up on the Irish border during the mid-90s ceasefire. A gritty litany of punishment beatings and point-blank executions, it centres on Republican sniper Liam, or Achill (because his dad is from Achill Island), who refuses to fight after his commander, Pig, steals his young lover Brigid, jeopardising a planned wildcat offensive against a local British base.

Where Barker lets air out of Greek myth’s supernatural elements by suggesting they function as a prop for macho pretension, Hughes turns them into a mischievous metaphor for the back-channel deals of dirty war; Achill is armed not by the gods but by Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi. In The Iliad, Agamemnon bungles his battle plan because of a dream planted in his head by Zeus; in Country, Pig falls for cooked-up British intelligence after someone makes a call “to the very top. And I mean the very top”.

Crunchy vernacular and urgent choral narration (“Wait now till your hear the rest”) hurry you through the increasingly strenuous ingenuity of these parallels. When MI5 blackmail Pig’s teenage sister-in-law Nellie into becoming a child spy, the episode – brutally sharp – gains little from her handler being nicknamed Paris, after Helen’s seducer in Homer.

Even Hughes seems to wince when he says a missing “W” on the sign outside the British base at Castle William means “young fellas around the town had started calling [it] Illiam”, as in Ilium, or Troy. “It kind of caught on for a while there,” he adds, almost sheepishly.

As thrillerishly bite-sized chapters hurtle towards an explosive climax involving an SAS crack shot, Henry – in the role of Hector, the warrior who leads the Trojan fightback – I found myself urging Hughes to cut loose. Mirroring The Iliad in a modern setting lets him make the point that the lofty ideals of self-styled “soldiers of destiny” are liable to fizzle out in petty grudges (“bogman score-settling”, as Achill puts it). But with a vibrant ensemble cast ultimately hemmed in by its off-page ancestry, the action starts to look far-fetched. Barker serves the Greek with a mutinous glint in her eye; Hughes ends up its prisoner.

• The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker is published by Hamish Hamilton (£18.99). To order a copy for £13.99 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

• Country by Michael Hughes is published by John Murray (£12.99). To order a copy for £11.04 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Anthony Cummins

The GuardianTramp

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