My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Length: 304 pages
Release date: 30 August 2018
The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, who continue to wage bloody war over a stolen woman–Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman watches and waits for the war’s outcome: Briseis. 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 cooly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position to observe the two men driving the Greek forces in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate, not only of Briseis’s people, but also of the ancient world at large.
I was a slave, and a slave will do anything, anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.
It doesn’t take knowledge of classical literature to understand the horrifying picture of women on the losing side of war painted by The Silence of the Girls. I may not have read the Iliad, but I was appalled all the same. On so many levels, this book was painful to get through. That’s not to say I regret reading it–quite the opposite: Precisely by being appalling, The Silence of the Girls serves as a jarring, shocking and necessary reminder that no amount of glamorising negates an awful reality.
The eponymous ‘silence’ stems from the voicelessness of Briseis and the many other enslaved women and girls in the Trojan War. Even in modern perspectives, theirs isn’t a point of view we frequently hear from. For Pat Barker to take source material that treats Briseis as more an object than a figure, and to preserve that historically faithful lack of status while imbuing her with lifelike character, is a feat in itself. After all, Homer wasn’t writing a person; he was writing a thing–a thing that was hotly contested between Achilles and Agamemnon and came to change the course of the war, but still a passive object with no agency. Barker’s Briseis may be as outwardly powerless as ever, but her cool inner monologue reveals incredible resilience.
In this book there are no heroes. Although there is a lot of cruelty verging onto sadism, there are no true villains either, unless you count the familiar forces of greed, anger and selfishness that drive all of the Iliad’s big names. In its dedication to showing the worst sides of war, The Silence of the Girls holds nothing back. Any trigger warning you can think of probably applies to this book. It’s harsher than any other feminist classical retelling I’ve read, namely Natalie Haynes’ The Children of Jocasta, Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad and of course Madeline Miller’s Circe and The Song of Achilles. Whereas Miller’s Achilles was a tortured prodigy doomed by Fate, Barker’s is a wilfully cruel, unsympathetic antagonist whose egotism underpins every interaction.
Yet at the end of the day, Briseis’ story began a footnote in Achilles’, and even in The Silence of the Girls she doesn’t escape his shadow. Parts Two and Three of the three-part novel utilise a rotating perspective. About half the chapters remain from Briseis’ first-person monologue, but the other half are taken by Achilles and Patroclus’s third-person narration. I find it curious how in a book ostensibly written to give voice to a voiceless character, much of the story is still relayed from the mind of a figure whose voice has traditionally been overpowering. Achilles’ heel, Achilles’ tendon; his name is embedded in the English language, do we really need more of him?
The argument can be made that a perspective besides Briseis’ was needed to convey information that she had no access to, but then what about one of the many supporting women whose lives had been stolen away just as or more tragically than Briseis? Many of them were condemned to much worse fates for not being former queens, so there’d have been no lack of suffering. Many of them had heartbreaking stories and carried their own unspoken insights. It so happens that this novel is called The Silence of the Girls, plural, even though we only ever see the point of view of one. Just one chapter where Iphis, Tecmessa, Chryseis or one of the numerous unnamed slaves had her turn to speak would have made the difference.
Well, as it stands we have only the voice of one girl. Worse things could happen, as Pat Barker never fails to remind her readers. I’ll cherish Briseis’ down-to-earth narration for the searing testimony it is. She doesn’t rebel; she doesn’t fight back; she does something far more implicating and powerful–she tells the truth. The result is a phenomenal and awfully bleak novel. Any other way wouldn’t do her justice.
*Thanks to Penguin Books UK and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*