The Silence of the Girls
By Pat Barker
Published September 11, 2018 by Doubleday
The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of the final days of the Trojan War through the eyes of Briseis, a former queen made a slave by the Greeks. A common phrase used by the male characters in the book is “Silence becomes a woman.” In this book, Pat Barker gives a voice to women silenced by history and legend.
The Trojan War may be the stuff of legends, but make no mistake, this is not a glorious, heroic war. It’s a stupid, pointless conflict that drags on for 9 years. The in-fighting and chest thumping among the Greeks is ridiculous, and it’s amazing they won the war.
At the beginning of the book, Briseis, Queen of Lyrnessus, watches as her city falls to the Greeks. Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, kills her husband and brothers. The city is taken, the men are all killed, and the women are taken as slaves to the Greek camp, a smelly, rat-infested place that’s overflowing with testosterone. And for the women who have been brought there, it’s a rape camp.
Briseis is young, beautiful, and a queen, so she is a great prize and is thus awarded to Achilles. As masters go, Achilles is not the worst, since he’s not deliberately cruel, but he’s not particularly kind and seems mostly disinterested. His best friend (and perhaps former lover) Patroclus is very kind to Briseis, and they become friends of a sort (although it’s obviously an unequal relationship). But then Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces, who is jealous of Achilles, demands Briseis for himself.
“None of that gives him the right to take another man’s prize of honor. It doesn’t belong to him; he hasn’t earned it.”
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 earnt it.
The reality of being nothing but a prize is harsh and Briseis has to find a way to come to terms with it and to survive. At the beginning of the book, as they watch the Greeks overrun their city, Briseis’ cousin throws herself off a roof rather than be taken, and Briseis chooses to stay alive. As a high-status prize, she at least has a roof over her head in the camp, but she wonders what happens when her master tires of her. There are older women in the camp who belong to no one. They work all day and at night, they huddle under tents, looking for a place to sleep. Briseis dreads this possible future. It’s a grim life in the camp, even with the best of masters.
There are a few chapters told from Achilles’ point of view. The narrative is very different in these chapters; Achilles is a more slippery character, harder to pin down. He’s neither hero not villain in this retelling. His grief over the loss of Patroclus is very effectively done, both through his narrative and that of Briseis.
The relationship between Briseis and Achilles is thankfully not romanticized in the book. Some of the slaves love their masters, but most of them are just trying to survive. This book is brutal and beautiful, and there are parts of it that are very hard to read. Barker writes entirely in modern language; there’s no attempt to make the language sound period appropriate. I like this choice, as it keeps the reader from thinking of this story as some sort of remote occurrence, rather than what it is, the sort of war brutality that we see repeated over and over throughout history and the present day. It’s a tough read at times, but it’s amazing book and I highly recommend it.
I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.