Silence of the Girls
by Pat Barker
The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman—Briseis—watches and waits for the war’s outcome. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.
When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position, able to observe the two men driving the Greek army in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate not only of Briseis’s people but also of the ancient world at large.
Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war—the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead—all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker’s latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives—and it is nothing short of magnificent.
When a retelling of the Iliad comes out with a perspective that is rarely chosen, I knew I was in for a treat. I have loved Iliad for a over three years now and to be reading about the events of the Trojan war from the perspective of a war prize, a slave was something I truly didn’t know I needed. Women’s narratives are rarely considered in mythology and other works of the same nature. To read it from Briseis’s point of view was like a slap in the face. Not because it was bad but because it was needed. Pat Barker does such a brilliant job of telling the events with women in the foreground.
Yes, you can still read about Achilles, Agamemnon and Odysseus and their glories but their glorious deeds loose a certain charm when looked at from different set of eyes. That is why I love retellings of any sort, you can see things from a different perspective or you can just recall your love of the original texts. Sometimes if you are very lucky, you get to have both. I hadn’t read Pat Barker’s books before this and I truly had no idea what to expect apart from the great things I had heard about from just about everyone. What I got was a heartbreak of a novel which made me want to cry so many times that I lost count near the end.
“This is what free people never understand. A slave isn’t a person who’s being treated as a thing. A slave is a thing, as much in her own estimation as in anybody else’s.”
In the original, Briseis had a very little role in the great scheme of things, a mere plot device really to further the plot along but here, Briseis has a voice and it is not happy. Her family, her husband were all killed on the same day and then she was given to Achilles as a prize. Her life afterwards is changed in many, many ways. From being a royal family member to being a slave, her journey is filled with horrible events and realisations. Briseis’s acceptance of what happened to her is terrible to read because Barker writes so brilliantly that you feel as if you are there with her, experiencing those things yourself. It made for a grim self realisation that for all that I think I am a feminist, I haven’t truly considered the perspectives of the women who became nothing but a slave in those myths and tragedies.
“Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men.”
There is Achilles and Patroclus in the book and after The Song of Achilles (which is an entirely different sort of tea), I think I found these to be most realistic depictions of Achilles and Patroclus. Achilles isn’t just the battle-hardened warrior or heroic, there’s a child inside of him that still has issues with his mother’s abandonment. There’s a side to him that is tender to those he truly loves but it is all shown without making him into someone entirely different. Patroclus was also written so well that sometimes I felt as if I had already known this Patroclus forever. His kindness and his pragmatic nature is shown so well here. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the little bits of Ajax that were given to us. King Priam was also given such a voice and narrative that I felt heartbroken for him all over again.
I was truly so happy with the way characters were written. If I had a complaint and I really do, there’s a reason this isn’t quite the five stars I wanted it to be but 4.5 stars. There are various little point of views scattered throughout the book but they are rather abrupt and sometimes I was left wondering for a few moments who I was reading about. That disconnect lessened the brilliance a little. However it does not negate the brilliant narration of Briseis or the truly unflinching reality of what life was like for women in the Greek camps and how brutal war tends to be. There’s this brilliant little insert in the book by Pat Barker that gives us a realistic picture of the plague that Apollo is said to have unleashed on the Greeks. She paints such a gruesome picture of the Greek camps filled with waste and food gone bad and how the rats increased in numbers as time went by. That little touch made everything so much better.
Overall, this was a brilliant retelling of the Iliad and Pat Barker did such a wonderful job of it that it almost seems seamless that one should read the Iliad and then read this to get different perspectives. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who loves Greek mythology and/or retellings. Frankly, you don’t even have to have read the Iliad to know about the plot.
“Silence becomes a woman.’ Every woman I’ve ever known was brought up on that saying.”
I read this book as part of my yearlong A Very Greek Myth Retelling Readathon, you can know more about it here. If you want to join in, you can do so at any time and there’s no time limit to how many you should read, I am trying to read one book per month.