Pat Barker has the gift of writing about long-ago wars in a way that makes them seem as urgent as the bulletins from any country in crisis. She conveyed anew the horror and barbarity of the Great War in her Regeneration and Life Class trilogies; and astonishingly, in her 2018 novel The Silence of the Girls, she managed to evoke with equal vividness a conflict that may never actually have taken place – the Trojan War.
Her new novel, The Women of Troy, goes on to tell the story of that war’s aftermath – once again, mainly from the viewpoint of Briseis, a princess taken as a sex slave by the invading Greek hero Achilles. It will almost inevitably join its predecessor on the bestseller lists, alongside a slew of recent retellings of Greek myths and legends by Madeline Miller, Stephen Fry and others. "I’ve met Stephen Fry. He bounded up and shook hands, and said: ‘We are the new mythologisers’," Barker tells me with a laugh. "There’s an awful lot of us suddenly." She is, frankly, puzzled by this explosion of interest in Greek myth, which only detonated after she was well into the writing of The Silence of the Girls. "But perhaps readers are fed up of ephemeral stories – they’re bombarded with them – and these stories, more than any others really, have stood the test of time."
Barker, 78, came late to an interest in the Trojan War. She only read Homer’s Iliad for the first time around a decade ago, after she came across a remark in Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain, about the whole of European literature starting with a brawl between two men over the body of a girl.
"You read the first book of The Iliad, and you get Agamemnon and Achilles making these impassioned, eloquent speeches, but the girls they are quarrelling over say absolutely nothing. I do think writers tend to be fascinated by silences."
Staying away from the 'f' word
She doesn’t agree with the widespread critical cliche that her books are a feminist spin on The Iliad: "I don’t think any word that ends in ‘-ist’, or ‘- ality’ for that matter, has any place in the writing of fiction. I’m not saying I’m not a feminist, but I never think like that when I’m writing fiction.
"And I think Homer was very pro women – all the images of women in The Iliad are really rather beautiful – but the nature of epic poetry is that it foregrounds the experiences of young, strong men in battle or on adventures."
I ask her how a writer known for her gritty realism – "gritty Northern realism," she amends, "and it doesn’t get any grittier than that" – copes with making a believable novel out of the inconsistencies and implausibilities of The Iliad. (She even makes the nonsensical episode of the Trojan Horse thrillingly convincing). "Well, I thought, ‘if it doesn’t bother Homer, it’s not going to bother me’."
Against all odds
I ask Barker about her upbringing in North Yorkshire. She was the fruit of a brief wartime relationship, and never knew her father. Her mother Moyra married when she was seven and Barker opted to live with her grandparents, who ran a fish and chip shop that failed.
"It was not a privileged childhood in that we were poor, but it was privileged in the sense that my grandmother, who had no meaningful education at all after the age of 11 or 12, was very open-minded and intelligent, and open to the idea of my going to university. There was no feeling of ‘People like us don’t go to places like that’."
After studying at the London School of Economics she worked as a teacher, married, had children, and wrote a number of unpublished novels. Eventually she found a publisher for Union Street (1982), a bleak tale of working-class women in the North East enduring poverty and violence: "I had made up my mind that I was never going to be published, so I wrote a very uncompromising book. I think if I’d believed it would be published I might have smoothed over some of the edges."
More books followed in the same vein, but she only started to receive serious attention and prize shortlistings when she switched to writing about the First World War: "I do think some subjects are seen as important and literary, and some subjects are not." In 1995 she won the Booker Prize for The Ghost Road.
Her two Trojan novels have, very unjustly, failed to make it to the Booker longlist. What does she think of the prize these days? "I was delighted when [Douglas Stuart’s novel of working-class Scottish life] Shuggie Bain won [last year], that really kicked the trend. But I just know so many people who regard the Booker shortlist as a list of books that they won’t understand so there’s no point them trying.
"There are books on most Booker shortlists that people would thoroughly enjoy, but if you read a list of 13 books, with a two- or three-line summary of what they’re about, it’s very easy to get to the end of that list and think that it’s been a box-ticking exercise, which is true of the list but not fair on the individual books."
What does she think of another of today’s literary hot potatoes – the question of authors appropriating other cultures’ stories and writing outside their own experience?
"If I were writing contemporary novels, I wouldn’t feel bound not to write about people from other ethnic groups, but I would, I suppose, hesitate, because of course there are many people who are qualified by personal experience and talent to write those stories. I think a certain amount of self-censorship has crept in. You know, I’m just pleased that I’m writing about people like Helen [of Troy], who hatched out of a swan’s egg. Because nobody can jump up and down saying, ‘That’s my story’."
Barker has never addressed the circumstances of her early life directly in her fiction: might she one day? "I think as a subject for a novel it would have been great in the 1950s. I think now it’s yawn yawn, frankly, and if I’m yawning, God help the reader."
How about a memoir? "I’m not interested in myself as a subject. I’m not saying I’m not interested in myself in the way we all are, but it doesn’t spark the desire to write fiction or memoir. So far, that is. Who knows? I didn’t think I was going to be writing books based on The Iliad – 10 years ago I’d have ridiculed that idea, for sure."
The Daily Telegraph