Reviewed by Alice Farrant
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker is the retelling of The Iliad from the perspective of Briseis (Brih-SAY-iss), once Queen of Lyrnessus and then slave and concubine to Achilles. From my understanding of The Iliad (I should admit now that I’ve not read it) and Wikipedia, Briseis falls in love with Achilles and becomes devoted to him. She is seen to be the cause of almost losing the war with the Trojans when Achilles refuses to fight when Agamemnon takes her from Achilles as compensation for losing his own concubine.
There was a lot more, but I’d stopped listening. Honour, courage, loyalty, reputation – all those big words being bandied about – but for me there was only one word, one very small word: it. It doesn’t belong to him, he hasn’t earned it.
Barker’s telling of Briseis story raises the question, why would a woman fall in love with a man who has destroyed her previous life and killed her family? It’s as if that traumatic experience had barely affected her, or there is no care for her feelings, no space for that in the story of men. In Ancient Greek mythology she is a tool, property to be given and degraded as seen fit by the men. However, Barker takes the story of Briseis and opens up the myriad of emotions and experiences brought on by the Trojan war from her point of view.
In later life, wherever I went, I always looked for the women of Troy who’d been scattered all over the Greek world. That skinny old woman with brown-spotted hands shuffling to answer her master’s door, can that really be queen Hecuba, who, as a young and beautiful girl, newly married, had lead the dancing in King Priam’s hall? Or that girl in the torn and shabby dress, hurrying to fetch water from the wall, can that be one of Priam’s daughters? Or the aging concubine, face paint flaking over the wrinkles in her skin, can that really be Andromache, who once, as Hector’s wife, stood proudly on the battlements of Troy with her baby son in her arms?
The story is told beautifully, with care taken to focus on the tale of Briseis and the Trojan slaves of Agamemnon and his chiefs (all female, as the enemy men were killed). Barker writes about men in relation to the women of the story, rather than women in relation to men, which is as prevalent now as it was then. Briseis remembers those dead in the Trojan war in relation to her experiences, and those will have been around their female relations. Barker gives space and time for the private lives of Troy, the homely aspects of life that women were confined to. Rather than being dry or boring, this brings life to the world and how these women fit into it, how they understood their roles (and restrictions) within it.
Ancient Greek mythology and Ancient Greek culture did not give much importance to women. Women bred, they weren’t for public society. From my meagre knowledge of the subject, women were confined to the home, and seen as the weaker sex. Mythology gave them no story; they were plot devices that pushed forward the story of the men. Whether it be the kidnapping of Helen to spark the Trojan war or in this case Briseis to spark the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, women rarely had power, agency, or a story.
Achilles cried as I was taken away. He cried, I didn’t. Now, years later, when none of it matters anymore, I am still proud of that.
To Achilles (and to the other men; Agamemnon, Odysseus, Nestor, Priam etc.) Briseis is property, not equal to them. She is a belonging, and like a child who loses his favourite toy Achilles is enraged by Agamemnon’s actions. Briseis’ lack of tears could be perceived by the male characters as stoicism for Achilles, when it’s a defiant action, to display to him that she is more than an it. Even when, in terms of how she is treated, being with Achilles is freedom-like in comparison to being with Agamemnon.
What is most enjoyable is that Barker allows Briseis to take action in any way she can, to enact small batters against the Greeks who have enslaved her. She protects the women around her as well: they aren’t enemies they are friends. In mythology, Helen is often portrayed as a woman who schemed to get what she wanted, Paris, but did she orchestrate the war that unfolded? To see Helen from a more sympathetic viewpoint is refreshing, and Briseis more than anyone can come to understand how easy it is to blame the woman for the consequences of two men fighting over her. Like Briseis, Helen has no autonomy.
Oh yes, I’d caused it – in much the same way, I suppose, as a bone is responsible for a dogfight […] I could feel the same hostility, the same contempt, gathering around me. I was Helen now.
When Chryseis’ father Chryses returns to reclaim her, Agamemnon refuses to part with his favourite concubine, Chryses leaves praying to Apollo for help. Overhearing, Briseis too wishes for Apollo to smite the camp, to help Chryseis and eradicate her prison; she isn’t grateful for her situation other than to acknowledge that at least she is handed out to the men to be had by whoever wishes. But she isn’t grateful to be with Achilles because of his power and strength. To her Achilles is a child, hung up on his mother, he is not a man to be admired.
She’s his prize, that’s all, his prize of honour, no more, no less. It’s nothing to do with the actual girl. And the pain he feels is merely the humiliation of having his prize stolen from him – yes, stolen – by a man who’s his inferior in every way that matters.
The only aspect of the novel that I disliked was that Achilles got sections from his perspective, insights into his thoughts, emotions, and plans to move forward with the war. While this was necessary to give context to the reader (if like me they have not read The Iliad) but after so much from Briseis’ perspective to have the third part of the book move in part to the perspective of Achilles pulled me from the story I was enjoying.
Ancient Greek classics are hailed as the pinnacle of fiction, the epics from which all other tales spring, not to mention where our notions of things like democracy and happiness spring from. But these tales suppress women and people of colour; to retell these stories from the perspective of the maligned is a way to highlight not only what was missing from the original text, but to highlight the importance of this type of storytelling in the modern day. These are the stories we should be telling to express the variety of our narratives. So often “white male privilege” tales are consistently hailed and honoured as the pinnacle of fiction, and retellings like Barker’s change that narrative. While those stories have an important place in our cultural development, it is important to re-examine them and re-tell them in ways they haven’t been approached before, to realise why, now, they aren’t saying enough about the diverse society that we are.
The Silence of the Girls is a powerful story illuminating the story of the girls, specifically Briseis, and their role in the fall of Troy. How they felt about the actions of the men that shaped their lives. Thought evoking and well paced, this is a book for all.
Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls (Hamish Hamilton: London, 2018). 978-0241338094, 323pp., trade paperback.
Buy at the Book Depository (affiliate link).