‘I heard him before I saw him: his battle cry ringing round the walls…’
When her city falls to the Greeks, Briseis’s old life is shattered. She goes from queen to captive, from free woman to slave, awarded to the godlike warrior Achilles as a prize of battle. She’s not alone. On the same day, and on many others in the course of a long, bitter war, innumerable women have been wrested from their homes and flung to the fighters.
As told in The Iliad, the Trojan War was a quarrel between men. But what of the women in this story, silenced by their fates? What words did they speak when alone with each other, in the laundry, at the loom, when laying out the dead?
In this magnificent novel of the Trojan War, Pat Barker summons the voices of Briseis and her fellow women to tell this mythic story anew, foregrounding their experiences against the backdrop of savage battle between men. One of the contemporary writers on war and its collateral damage, here Pat Barker reimagines the most famous of all wars in literature, charting one woman’s journey through it, as she struggles to free herself and to become the author of her own story.
First published: 2018
When I received The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker as a birthday gift from my parents last October, I hadn’t heard much about it yet, but since then, there’s been a lot of buzz. The book was nominated for the Costa award and for the Women’s Prize for Fiction as well. I’m not sure if it has won anything – but it certainly was rated highly. The Guardian called it “a feminist Iliad” and everywhere I looked people were praising this book for the way it gave the women of the Trojan war a voice. This all made me very excited to read the book and experience it for myself.
I was sorely disappointed.
To be fair, the story started out pretty good. The beginning was very promising and I thought Briseis was an interesting character to experience this story through. She’s an intelligent woman and the way she explains what she is sure will happen to her once Achilles has laid siege on the city she is the queen of is striking and poignant. Then, she goes from queen to slave and the sudden change makes for a contrast that sheds even more light on how awful the fates of these women are (royal and ‘common’ alike).
Achilles picks Briseis as his prize which means (among other, much more horrible, things) that Briseis hears a lot about the war and what is happening beyond the camp. Through her, we see that Achilles is the biggest, strongest warrior, but also proud and petulant and by no means perfect. This was interesting, although I was much more interested to see how the women in the camp were faring. Luckily, we got some of that as well.
Until we get to Part 2 of the book, after about 100 pages. Suddenly, Briseis is moved to the sidelines, and Achilles becomes our main character. At first, I thought maybe this was only a short shift of perspective to introduce the second part of the story, but no. While we do get some more chapters told from Briseis’ perspective, Achilles’ perspective is here to stay as well. I’m just going to say it as it is here: that pissed me off. A lot.
The Silence of the Girls is marketed and hailed as this great feminist novel on the Trojan War, all about the women who were there too, but who are always forgotten. Well, it seems like Barker forgot about the women halfway through her novel as well. Or perhaps she decided she no longer liked writing about Briseis and her suppressed sisters and wanted to write about the ‘real’ action: Achilles, the other men, and their penis-led, petulant politics.
Whatever the reason behind it; the second half of the book is no longer about the women. Even the chapters told from Briseis’ perspective still mostly center around Achilles, his struggles and all the bloodshed he is causing. Sure, the women are featured a few more times, but they are reduced to side characters, standing in the shadow of Achilles once again. When we do get glimpses of the women, it is mostly so we can be told about how horribly they were raped or otherwise mistreated by the men – and then it cuts back to Achilles.
Now, Achilles isn’t portrayed as a nice guy at all. He is in no way likeable and he isn’t intended to be, that much is clear. But that doesn’t matter. I don’t care that the great hero is reduced to a petulant, whining, brutal manchild. What I care about is these women and I was promised a story about them.
Instead, I got yet another story about men – and we’ve heard that story a million times before.