The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Published by Doubleday Books
Publication date: September 4, 2018
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Whether you read The Iliad in the original Greek, in an academic translation, or watched Brad Pitt and Eric Bana glisten as they warred on a sandy beach what everyone knows of the Trojan War is the men. And why not? It’s a story of men told by men. Author Pat Barker is having none of that. Instead, she’s looks at the war that lasted nine years and was set off by one man’s pride over being cuckolded, from the perspective of the women. And not the oh-so-gorgeous Helen, because honestly, she was a foolish woman who fell for a pretty face and got to hide in his kingdom until it fell. No, Barker’s new novel, The Silence of the Girls, is told from the perspective of Briseis, a queen of one of the kingdoms surrounding Troy, who becomes Achilles’s concubine after her city is destroyed. Except then, the Greek’s leader, Agamemnon (who is a flat-out pig) has to return his concubine to her father to appease the god Apollo who is punishing the Greeks with a plague. Agamemnon hates Achilles, because Achilles sees him for the coward he is, so to punish him, Agamemnon demands Briseis. Achilles has no choice but to surrender her and then things get really ugly.
The options for mortal women during wartime in Greek mythology are limited. Even if you are a queen, the best you can hope for is to be ‘awarded’ to a brave warrior with some kindness. Then, when he tires of you, he hands you off to his men—until you are a pale wraith of a woman who sorts through garbage for food and sleeps with the camp dogs. Sounds grim, yes? Why read a novel filled with such darkness? Because Briseis is a fascinating woman. Correction—and it’s a key one that contributes to why this novel is so compulsively readable: I use the term ‘women’, but these were girls. Teenagers forced into situations beyond understanding. Briseis is 19. She may have lost everything to the Greeks, but she never stops trying to find a way out and a way to protect the women around her. Through Briseis, Barker gives readers a detailed look at the life of women caught in the middle of war and used as pawns, labor, healers, and sex slaves.
It would have been easier, in many ways, to slip into thinking we were all in this together, equally imprisoned on this narrow strip of land between the sand dunes and the sea; easier, but false. They were men, and free. I was a woman, and a slave. And that’s a chasm no amount of sentimental chit-chat about shared imprisonment should be allowed to obscure.
Barker can’t eliminate men from the novel because they are the cause of the destruction around them, but she portrays them with clear eyes. I am a huge fan of Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, but if you need to think of Achilles as a misunderstood warrior then this book is not for you. He is a prideful, vindictive, brilliant, killing machine. He has no mercy. Barker portrays him without poetry. It is not a flattering portrait, but it is still nuanced.
However, if the lyricism of other renditions of the Trojan War or Achilles’s life were not your cup of tea, then The Silence of the Women will be more to your liking. Barker writes so convincingly of all the women Briseis encounters and their lives in the camps, that I had to keep reminding myself, ‘This wasn’t real. This is mythology, not history.’ Because I wanted to know what happened to Briseis, Iphis, Andromache, Tecmessa. At the same time, despite the battles dragging on for years, the novel is one of action. Barker doesn’t make any effort to mythologize the brutality of war. What she does is create an immersive experience from a new perspective, that of the silent girls whose lives were upended by gods and men alike and how they fought to survive.
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