Title: The Silence of the Girls
Author: Pat Barker
Genre: Mythology, Historical Fiction
Date published: August 30th, 2018
Page Count: 336
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 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 coolly 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.
Trigger warnings: Rape, war, graphic violence.
When I was young, I was a fanatic for Greek mythology. I would lie with my best friend on the couch and read Edith Hamilton’s book Mythology over the weekends. But as a helpless idealist, I would always try to spin the stories for a brighter version. Perhaps that was why I liked to remain ignorance and believe that Persephone left with Hades willingly or that while held captive, Briseis slowly fell in love with Achilles.
Perhaps, that was why initially, I was hesitant on picking up the book. But needless to say, this was such a powerful and compelling read. This retelling of the Iliad is told not from the perspectives of the victorious or defeated, but rather the silenced and hidden. We see the legendary war through the perspective of Briseis, Achilles prize of battle and slave.
The premise of story is so interesting. The story revolves around Briseis falling from the stature as the princess of Lyrnessus into a slave when her city is sacked by the Greeks. Briseis’ story focuses on many things that one usually doesn’t think about when learning about the Trojan war. Certain parts of the story that are shortened in the original tale is stretched out, while other parts that are significant in the original seem insignificant in Barker’s version. It makes you as a reader more cognizant about how the perspective matters so much.
The plot is dynamic; slowing down and quickening at sporadic intervals. Some chapters are filled with action while others are more focused on the introspective nature of Briseis or her careful observations of Achilles. There is no romance, yet the distinctive bond and unspoken tension between them is constantly present throughout.
What drew me most in was the complexity of the characters. It’s amazing how Barker successfully creates characters like Briseis or Achilles who are so multidimensional and layered with so many depths. Although the story is primarily told in Briseis perspective, so much is revealed about Achilles, and how complex of a person he is. He is exactly what the Iliad portrays him to be, prideful and imperfect. However, Barker takes it one step further by interlacing his character with his past: the abandonment of his mother, the loyal friendship developed between him and Patroclus, and the scars from the previous battles that continue to haunt him.
“How do you separate a tiger’s beauty from its ferocity? Or a cheetah’s elegance from the speed of its attack? Achilles was like that — the beauty and the terror were two sides of a single coin.”
This was a grueling read, and a bit disheartening finish. There is no romance. There is no filter. There is no happy ending. This book was very difficult to take in initially, and is filled with quite a few scenes involving rape and physical abuse. Personally, I found it really hard and uncomfortable to get through some of the parts. Barker doesn’t shy away from the brutalities of war nor the misogyny that prevailed throughout the camp. Yet it forced me to realize how tales are often filtered or romanticized to shelter the readers. I’m truly glad I got to pick up The Silence of the Girls, and see a new spin on an old tale.
I thought: Suppose, suppose just once, once, all these centuries, the slippery gods keep their word and Achilles is granted eternal glory in return for his early death under the walls of Troy…? What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.
My heart has been aching for a while since finishing the book. A part of me wishes to watch Troy again, and return to a more romantic tale that I love. Another part of me is grateful that I finally see a new perspective.
Have you read the book? What do you think about it? I’d love to know!!