In Silence of the Girls Pat Barker retells the story of the Trojan War from the perspective of Briseis. Once a queen, now the slave of the great warrior Achilles, Barker re-situates this ancient tale with women at the centre. While we get some scenes from Achilles’ perspective, Briseis is our narrator and the focus of the tale. And by doing so, Barker draws our attention to just how central women are to this story. Famously, Helen is the woman at the beginning of the Trojan War. Nine years in, Briseis is central to the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, one that ultimately leads to the end of the war.
The novel begins with the fall of Lyrnessus. Briseis, a young royal woman, has lived a privileged but limited life. When the city is taken by the Greeks, she is awarded as a prize to Achilles. Amongst slaves she is better off than some but she is still a slave, forced into sexual relations with the man who killed her family. And even her privilege means nothing as she becomes a pawn between men, bartered back and forth, with no power over her own life. Over and over, Barker shows this powerlessness, for Briseis and for the other women who live as slaves in the war camp of the Greeks as they attack the city of Troy. We see the choices the women make, how they are forced to adapt, the sacrifices they make, and the ways they remember the lives they have lost.
Briseis is an interesting character to follow. We are shown glimpses of her life before enslavement. The privileges she enjoyed but also the lack of control she had even then, given in marriage to a man who barely knows and does not seem to mourn. She is smart and resourceful and stubborn but we see her change and adapt, sometimes unwillingly, as her time in captivity continues.
The action of the story all takes place within the soldiers’ camp. The action of war is off-screen, sometimes witnessed from afar. We see the women’s weaving huts, the men’s dining halls, the bedrooms of powerful men, and the medical huts where the women care for the sick and wounded. In one particularly powerful chapter, Barker mirrors The Iliad as Achilles strikes down the Trojan soldiers. In Homer’s epic, the reader is given detailed descriptions of the slaughtered soldiers and how they die. Barker gives us some of these descriptions but then offers a mirror image of the mothers’ perspectives. Not how their son died but who they were as children, how their mothers’ remember them. It’s a powerful reminder of the individuals that make up a war.
While you don’t have to have read The Iliad before reading The Silence of the Girls, I do think at least a general knowledge of the Trojan War will help any reader. It’s been fifteen years since I read The Iliad so my memory was spotty (and I jogged it with the aid of Wikipedia) but it did enable me to spot some of the techniques that Barker uses. Likely, there are others that I missed.
This is an extremely strong novel with very few missteps. Even though I well knew how it would all end, I couldn’t put the book down. Thoroughly impressive.