The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, Penguin, £18.99 Review by Mark Smith

It’s often said that history is written by the winners, but there’s another rule too: history is almost always by and about men. Pat Barker's new historical novel, The Silence of the Girls, offers a riposte by retelling the story of the Trojan War with the female supporting cast moved centre stage. It may be legend rather than history, but the war has usually been seen as a man’s story, in particular a feud between men over one woman, Helen. Instead, in Barker’s version the central character is Briseis, an aristocratic Trojan woman abducted after the fall of the city of Lyrnessus, and chosen by the triumphant Greek, Achilles, as his prize and reward.

In some ways the Trojan War is a new direction for Barker as she has largely built her considerable reputation on stories of 20th century conflict and in particular the First World War. As powerful accounts of the pains and struggles of soldiers, her Regeneration trilogy and later novels such as Toby’s Room deserve a place among the greatest First World War literature alongside Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and All Quiet on the Western Front.

In other ways, though, the subject plays to all of Barker’s strengths. In the opening section, she lays out what it might feel like to be caught up in a war as Briseis looks over the parapets of her city and sees Greek fighters spilling through the gates. Later, she and other women are lined up for inspection and distribution as slaves and the slavemaster tells them to forget their previous lives. “So there was my duty laid out in front of me,” says Briseis, “as simple and clear as a bowl of water: remember.”

This early episode is central to our impression of Briseis. When Achilles exercises his right to sleep with her, Briseis gets through it by telling herself that it will end one day, but also imagines living long enough to see Achilles sizzling on his funeral pyre. It feels like an authentic representation of what it might be like to be a prisoner and a slave but to remain free in your mind.

However, this is Pat Barker so there are many more levels of subtlety to come. In the hands of another novelist, Achilles might have ended up being portrayed as an out-and-out baddie, but here it is much more nuanced and satisfying. On the one hand we have his incredible strength, courage and ruthlessness; on the other, we have his love of music, and for his goddess mother, and the fascinating relationship with his second-in-command Patroclus which may or may not be physical but is certainly just as powerful as the love or lust he feels for women. Barker does not hide the horror and violence of Achilles the war commander, but we also see the softness and weakness inside the strength.

If there are modern parallels, they probably lie in the temporary community where Briseis and the other Trojans are forced to live, reminiscent of today's immigrant camps. But direct parallels are unnecessary because it is the emotional experience of the characters that feels true and relevant and appears both ancient and modern. Some of the prisoners in the camp adapt, even thrive; others nurse their fury as a form of freedom behind the bars.

Where the novel is occasionally less successful is in the dialogue. Barker has chosen to have her characters speak in a modern style using 21st century idioms, but there are times when it jars badly. Like the moment when Odysseus tells Achilles that he is “gagging for” a fight. Something a little more neutral might have maintained the atmosphere more effectively. Otherwise, the novel is subtle, colourful, and, in typical Barker-style, clinically effective. Her sentences never indulge in swoops and swirls, and yet they contain great power and punch.

She also pulls off the difficult act of mixing the bloody reality of war with the high myth of gods and goddesses. Some of the most effective sequences are those in which Achilles encounters his goddess mother Thetis. Achilles aches when she returns to the sea and is in agony when Patroclus is killed, and it’s then that we get to the heart of one of the most interesting themes of a novel from the supreme writer on the effects of war: how anger can turn in to stubbornness and violence but also how grief can turn into anger.