My rating: 4 stars
An engrossing retelling of Homer’s Iliad, The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker explores how the women who became slaves during the Trojan War struggled to overcome their grief inconspicuously, while men had the freedom to display it openly and seek revenge. This contrast is achieved by offering readers different perspectives. The majority of the story is narrated in the first person by Briseis, but we are also presented the points of view of Achilles and Patroclus in the third person. Most important of all, the characters are believably intricate.
Briseis intersperses the recount of the attack on Lyrnessus by Achilles with memories from her past. She married very young and didn’t feel any support from her mother-in-law, Queen Maire. During the war, which started nine years previously, she saw her husband and her brothers be killed by Achilles. Afterwards, Greek soldiers looted the buildings and raped the women, starting with the slaves on the basement and ending with the noblewomen on the roof. They were then taken to the Greek encampment, where Briseis was chosen as Achilles’s bed-slave.
Sometime later, a plague took over the camp and caused the death of many soldiers. They believed that this was a punishment by Apollo, since Agamemnon, who had taken Chryseis as his bed-slave, refused to accept the offer from her father, a priest, to pay for her freedom. The following developments and the fact that bed-slaves were perceived as possessions led to a feud between Achilles and Agamemnon, involving Briseis.
She is a remarkable character. When she first became a slave, she felt numb, but then a huge pain took over her. She prayed for vengeance. Although she despised Achilles as the man who had attacked her people, her actions and thoughts show that she was more conflicted about him than she would have liked to be. She also felt empathy for the hurt soldiers. These ambivalences make her personality exceedingly interesting. Furthermore, her state of mind is often beautifully and meaningfully described.
“I was immediately aware of a new desire to be part of it, to dissolve into it: the sea that feels nothing and can never be hurt.”
Briseis isn’t the only multifaceted character, though. Achilles isn’t solely portrayed as a monster. There is some fragility in him as well, and that can be perceived, for example, through his profound connection with Patroclus, his foster-brother, from whom Briseis learnt about Achilles’s past. Pat Barker explored the complexities of the characters’ feelings and personalities with great aptitude, particularly the marks that past events and war leave on people.
If only rarely did Briseis speak with Achilles at first, she had many opportunities to talk to the other women who had become slaves. They were the war prizes of various renowned men from Ancient Greece – Odysseus, Agamemnon, Ajax… They all seemed to try to make the best of their awful circumstances.
Throughout the novel, there are many descriptions of natural elements, sounds, lights and smells that help visualise the settings of the characters’ actions. Some are notably evocative and haunting.
“There’s a sprinkling of stars, fading fast as the sun’s power starts to gather on the rim of the world.”
Overall the story is immersive. Reading it feels like travelling in time and walking among legendary characters. Nevertheless, at certain occasions, too modern vocabulary is used, which brusquely and unnecessarily awakens the reader from an engrossing daydream.
Even if slightly imperfect, The Silence of the Girls is a fascinating read that deserves to be savoured.